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Near-final Thunderbird 3 due next week

Coming in the next version of Mozilla's e-mail software: easier setup, better search, a tabbed interface, and if all goes to plan, a richer world of add-ons.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Thunderbird 3, an update to the e-mail software that Mozilla hopes will give it some of the advantages its Firefox browser has enjoyed, is due to arrive in near-final form next week.

Mozilla Messaging plans to issue release candidate 1 of Thunderbird 3 as soon as Monday, with the final version expected later in November, the e-mail-focused subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation said Thursday.

"We're down to the last few bugs," said Chief Executive David Ascher. "Feedback with the last beta was enthusiastic." Thunderbird 3 beta 4 can be downloaded for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Mozilla Messaging CEO David Ascher
Mozilla Messaging CEO David Ascher Stephen Shankland/CNET

Thunderbird doesn't get as much attention as Firefox, the chief product of the Mozilla Foundation's other subsidiary. But with Thunderbird 3, Ascher and Mozilla Messaging are trying harder to take advantage of one technology that's helped the browser's fortunes: add-ons. They could be written for Thunderbird 2, but only with what Ascher termed an act of heroism; Thunderbird 3 makes add-ons much easier.

One area where add-ons show up is a new Thunderbird 3 feature, Google and Yahoo calendar functions in the software--using its built-in Firefox engine for handling Web pages, naturally.

"There are a bunch of actions that start in e-mail that really involve the Web," Ascher said. Another example he said Mozilla Messaging will write if some enterprising person doesn't do it first: an add-on to help people assess whether to follow a particular Twitter user who just signed up to follow you.

Another add-on that's already under way is Lightning, which parallels Outlook's calendar functions. A Thunderbird 3-compatible version should arrive about the same time, he said. Ultimately, Thunderbird should be able to integrate with either Lightning or Web-based calendars, including the automation of operations such as accepting event invitations.

Better search
The add-ons also dovetail with a significant new Thunderbird feature, improved search. With Thunderbird 2's folder-based search approach, people often didn't set up searches so they could find what they needed. With Thunderbird 3, it returns all results that match the text, not just what's in a particular folder.

"It's really important to search everywhere," Ascher said. As with Google, "You type a word, and you get results."

Of course that can retrieve a lot of unwanted results. So the search results page offers a variety of ways to winnow that search down--limiting it to particular people, to messages with a specific tag, or to a particular time frame selected from a timeline that presents messages using the search term.

These functions to refine the search, which Mozilla Messaging calls "facets," are another area where add-ons can help, Ascher said.

Also coming in Thunderbird 3 is a simpler start-up process. The software is set up in advance to automatically set up the increasingly complicated server configuration for various accounts. I tried it with Gmail, and it indeed was up and running in moments after I entered only my name, e-mail address, and password. The software comes with several profiles built in, and it makes intelligent guesses if it doesn't know, but people will be able to write their own modules that can be shared, too.

Another feature in the new version is the archive, a feature borrowed from Google's Gmail that's a kind of digital purgatory. E-mails sent to the archive are still available through search, but they don't clutter up the inbox. Folders are still available for those who want to file messages the traditional way.

"The original idea of e-mail, putting messages in folders one by one, was reasonable when we got ten messages a day. Now that we get a couple hundred or more, that's a huge burden," Ascher said. "We made archive really easy and complemented it with (an) easy-to-use search experience.

Streamlined interface
One big interface change is the addition of tabs. Mail accounts, folders, and individual messages can show as new tabs rather than new windows. It's one of a number of efforts to provide a more streamlined interface.

One other is moving some message-specific operations to the message window--reply, reply to a mailing list, forward, archive, and other options. Another: the main toolbar has been cleaned up so only essential actions show, though others can be added through customization. And people can be added to the address book with a single click of a star next to their names--not unlike Firefox 3.5's one-click bookmark operation.

Some routine tasks--labeling a message as junk, for example--are designed to be faster, he added.

"If you look at the number of seconds saved over the population of Thunderbird users, it tends to be several lifetimes per year," Ascher said.

One new feature in Thunderbird 3 is a simplified account setup. You enter three bits of information, and Thunderbird often can take it from there.
One new feature in Thunderbird 3 is a simplified account setup. You enter three bits of information, and Thunderbird often can take it from there. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET