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February 6, 2008

7 Thunderbird Extensions that will allow you to replace Outlook

by @ 6:56 am. Filed under email clients, Thunderbird

Thunderbird

Whether you are using Linux or not, Thunderbird is a great email client. It’s been around awhile, and works well. But what if we want more than what Thunderbird offers stock? What can we do so that we can share address books between users on completely different computers? Is there a way to use calendars? Can we then share the calendars so other users can access them? With fresh-from-the-box Thunderbird, good luck. Fortunately, the folks at Mozilla have given us the ability to create extensions for this great email client. Because of this, we have a bunch of slick extensions that can provide us with some cool features. Mainly, if we don’t want to pay huge fees for proprietary solutions, but we still want to be able to share address books and calendars, we can do it with Thunderbird. We just need to know which extensions to use.

Well fasten your seatbelts. The list I’m about to give you could overhaul the way you do email. It’s a list of extensions that allow you to turn Thunderbird into a full-on communications center. Here we go…

1 – Addressbooks Synchronizer – sync your address books to multiple machines

This plugin gives you the ability to synchronize whatever address books you have in Thunderbird. You can sync between home, office, and laptop. You can sync between all your users at the office. It’s a snap to install and configure, unlike a shared directory. Especially if said directory is on a proprietary solution.

Once you get it installed, and you restart Thunderbird, go to the TOOLS menu, and select ADD-ONS. In the list that appears, select “Addressbooks Synchronizer”, and then click the PREFERENCES button.

To set up synchronization, select the SYNCHRONIZE tab at the top. In the “Addressbooks to sync” box, tick the addressbooks that you want to sync. Below that, select the “Remote” tab. Select “Synchronize with remote files”, and then the protocol you wish to use. FTP works great for me. Put in the host, username, and password, and then the path you will use to house your addressbook files. Configure your preferences below that. I just do sync on startup and shutdown, but set it to whatever works for you. Take a look:

Addressbooks Synchronizer Thunderbird Extension

2 – Lightning – manage your time and tasks with extensive calendaring features

Lightning is one of those extensions that, once you use it, you cannot live without. You can use it to schedule appointments and maintain your entire calendar. It shows you a summary of what events you have today, tomorrow, and soon. Another great feature is that it provides task management. It also offers configurable event notification reminders. Quick peek:

Lightning Thunderbird Extension

3 – Lightning Nightly Updater (Unofficial) – From the download page : “Quickly get to the latest nightly builds of Lightning relevant to the version of Thunderbird and the OS you’re on.”

This extension makes sure that you are aware of and can update to any new versions of Lightning that appear. The latest and greatest is what we like, so I highly recommend this extension.

4 – Provider for Google Calendar – connect to and sync with your Google calendar, which you can also share

This gives you the ability to sync with your Google calendars. There is no prefs box to set it up, but using it is simple. First, go ahead and install the extension. Next, you need to set up a Gmail account if you don’t already have one. Then go to http://www.google.com/calendar/render and make sure your calendar is working, maybe create an event or two. Next, go to your calendar’s settings:

Provider for Google Calendar Thunderbird Extension

A page will appear with the details of your calendar’s settings Go down to the PRIVATE ADDRESS, and right-click on the XML button. Select “Copy Link Location”:

Provider for Google Calendar Thunderbird Extension

You now have a link to your Google Calendar copied to your clipboard.

Back in Thunderbird, open the FILE menu, select NEW, and then select CALENDAR. You can also double-click or right-click in the calendar list to create a new calendar. The “Create a New Calendar” box comes up. Instead of “On My Computer,” we are going to select “On the Network”, and click NEXT:

Select : On the Network

In the next screen, select “Google Calendar”, and paste the Private Calendar URL into that box. Click NEXT:

Google Calendar : Private Calendar URL

The following screen allows you to select a name and a color for your calendar. Go ahead and set them as you wish and press NEXT.

Surprise! A calendar login appears:

Google Calendar : Login Box

You need to know the password of the account whose private calendar you are accessing. This means that you should do one of two things. First, you could set up a Gmail account that everyone in the group knows the password for. This way, they can all change things as necessary. Another alternative is to only share your calendar with people you trust. Either way, it’s a matter of preference. You could do a combination of the two, as you can have as many calendars in Thunderbird as you want. So fill in the password, check the box to remember it, and click OK.

You can now share the Calendar URL with whoever you need to. Point them to this tutorial on how to set it up for themselves.

5 – addressContext – An extension to add addressbook-related options to the context menu.

Email messages just about always have contacts associated with them. Such contacts are usually senders or recipients. This extension allows you to do things with the contact information associated with a given email message. It adds things to the context menu:

Address Context

So, for example, let’s say the HR department where I work sends out an email with every email address in the company as a recipient. If I right-click on that message, I can add every recipient therein as an address book contact. Boom, instant employee directory.

6 – Contacts Sidebar – From the download page: “Displays the address books in a sidebar in Thunderbirds 3-pane window”

Gives you the ability to make the contacts in each of the different address books show up in the main Thunderbird window. Nice for quick access to contacts:

Contacts Sidebar

7 – Duplicate Contact Manager – From the download page: “Facilitates handling of duplicates in your address book(s).”

This extension is very nice. It helps remove or combine the duplicates in your address book. I use this thing all the time:

Duplicate Contact Manager

If you want to sync contacts and calendars between many computers, these extensions will give you this capacity. These are a small handful of the available extensions for Thunderbird. There are a bunch more available for your enjoyment or to boost productivity. Check them out when you get a moment.

If you want to give Thunderbird some visual appeal, take a look at the Top 10 Best Themes for Thunderbird.

January 7, 2008

Which email client is the reigning king?

by @ 12:52 pm. Filed under email clients, My Opinion, Thunderbird

Question of the day: What is the difference between a duck?

Answer: I just called your mom.

Here’s a prediction for you: Whoever (M$ is not included here) makes the perfect email client, and has the muscle to get a huge install base for it will have unparalleled influence over the way people communicate. You see, email is the new telephone, though it will never replace the telephone. Just like the telephone will never equal talking face-to-face. But see, more people are using email than ever have before. Why do you think spammers keep on their evil deeds? They know and realize the expanding power of email. But back to the topic at hand : the perfect email client.

On September 18, 2007, I wrote a few thoughts about the Top 9 Things Thunderbird Will Need to ‘Make It.’ As far as these things are concerned, I’m still left with a feeling of, “We can put a man on the moon, so why can’t we make a stellar email client?” Determining and declaring the best email client available today is futile and pointless. Why? Because everyone has different needs. What fills my needs the best, you may abhorrently hate. What you may find to be invaluable may be totally useless to me. That said, I wanted to see if I could take a little more of an objective approach to determining the features offered by the most common email clients. This would then give people some small quantification as to how they might find the email client that meets their criteria the best.

This issue keeps surfacing because I am searching for an open source collaboration system that works for me. I have a handful of small requests. Here are the things that I imagine might be useful and important for such a setup:

Large install base – this means a lot of available support from the community. Forums, FAQs, blogs, and howtos are readily available for when you need to learn how to do something with the software.

Easily extendable – it should have an API which people can use to develop plugins or extensions for the software so as to make it more usable for their needs. This also gives the developers of the project an idea as to what is most important for people. If used properly, it can give a kind of ‘suggested development path’ provided by the community.

Synchronization / Collaboration – This one isn’t new. You need to be able to synchronize mail, schedule, tasks, notes, documents, and contacts across multiple installations of the software. It would be wonderful to invite people to appointments and assign tasks to others. How about giving varying degrees of access to my schedule, appointments, and tasks?

Core Functionality – Has to support email, schedule, tasks, notes, contacts and must aggregate my RSS feeds. And not only support them. Each area should be well into mature stages of stability and feature sets. Don’t make me work an eternity to get the thing set up and working.

Speed and Responsiveness – I once got in trouble from a reader when I said that waiting gives me cancer, so I won’t say that. Know that I do get malignant moles removed at least once a month. Do not make me wait.

That said, let’s take a look at the different email clients and what my experience has been with each of them.

Before I begin, I want to explain what UVC is. From the home page, it claims:

“The UVC Collaboration Suite is software that contains all the functionality of a Groupware solution combined with the convenience of an instant messenger. UVC brings together teams of people and allows them to work together seamlessly. Take the leap from traditional desktop contact managers and start experiencing a new level of software freedom.”

It is basically a java-driven multi-platform collaboration tool that is free for individual use, but has widely expandable capabilities for a yearly per-user fee. I’ve used it for around 4 years off and on.

That now said, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Thunderbird, UVC, and Evolution. I would include all of the KMail/KDE tools, but I have not, as yet, done much research on them. If you have links to any great tutorials, howtos, or information pages explaining those capabilities, please let me know.

Thunderbird
Pros Cons
Huge install base – ample support Slow – some things take forever
Lots of great add-ons for it – extendable Things don’t always work right
Synchronizes Address Books Has trouble with huge amounts of email
Synchronizes Calendars Must install client to use, data local
Does RSS feeds Takes a lot of system resources
Does email, tasks, calendar, contacts Lots of extra setup to get it working
Absolutely free No memos
Improved task management No ability to synchronize tasks
Imports / Exports well enough  
Functionality not limited  
Able to view appointments, contacts, etc.  
Ability to back up data as necessary  
UVC
Pros Cons
Excellent management of tasks Limited capacity – light work only
Allows for almost all needs Even with paid account, limited capacity
Will run from anywhere Takes a lot of system resources
Does email, tasks, calendar, contacts, notes Cannot back up data
Able to send appointments, contacts, etc.

Full functionality requires payment
Able to view appointments, contacts, etc.

 
Just works – great all-in-one solution

 
Allows for exports and imports of varying types

 
Evolution
Pros Cons
Does email, tasks, calendar, contacts, memos Takes a lot of system resources
Very snappy responsive interface Needs a collaboration server
Handles huge amounts of messages Crashes periodically
Handles memos and tasks very well  
Seems much more enterprise-level  

Is there an open source collaboration server that NATIVELY will work with either Thunderbird or Evolution without too much headache or loss of precious (read non-existant) financial resources?

If there is something that is missing here, give me your feedback. Argue your point well, don’t just put a link to release notes or feature list. Tell me why something is or is not important to you personally.

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