What’s New in Thunderbird 38?


Disclaimer: First post in over a month, blame summer! This post was intended to be published on SitePoint.com but we decided that an Introductionary article to Thunderbird would be more suitable for a general audience, hence why I’m also quite late to the party here.

Having said that, if I could convince even a single person to use Thunderbird with this post, I consider that a success.

Email is probably the most timeless technology still widely used today. Of course the underlying tech has evolved along the years and while people in the 90’s were happier to receive an email rather than a physical letter, the opposite takes now place.

Although webmail has gained a lot of traction in the last years, power users or corporate environments still prefer email clients, as they offer endless customization possibilities.

Whereas Microsoft Outlook is mostly used, Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client has made itself a name as the flagship open source email client, being used by more than 50 Million users worldwide.

However, after Mozilla abandoned the Thunderbird project in July 2012 and reallocated all its former employees, volunteers were asked to keep the project alive. The results were great seeing the project was completely developed by volunteers, however it missed to reach to the level for which Mozilla stood up. I have written a lengthy blogpost about this also.

Thunderbird Group Photo Toronto Summit 2014 CC-BY-SA Kent James

With the project in the hands of the volunteers, it was decided to switch Thunderbird to an ESR (Extended Support Release) cycle, basically meaning that the stable release would be released only once a year, just like the Firefox ESR. Thunderbird Beta releases are however released every 6 weeks, on the same schedule as Firefox.

Although 1 month later than planned, Thunderbird 38 successes 31 and boasts some pretty big changes on top of it. This is a significant milestone for the Thunderbird team, as it is the first release that has been fully managed by the volunteer team rather than by Mozilla staff. Mozilla is still heavily involved with this release, as Thunderbird still use Mozilla infrastructure for the build and release process.

After more than a year, let’s have a look at the new Thunderbird 38.

Changes, Fixes and New Features

Yahoo Messenger Chat

Thunderbird supports integration with various chat accounts, so you can start chatting right into Thunderbird without the need to fragment your chat sessions. 38 now additionally also supports Yahoo Messenger.

Filtering sent/archived messages

Something where webmail can hardly replace an email client are filters. A lot of people are often satisfied with how Gmail handles emails out of the box. but if you want full control over your email folders and filtering, clients are the way to go. Now Thunderbird also supports filtering of sent or archived messages (you can run filters manually in Thunderbird too).

Search in multiple address books

In Thunderbird 31 address book searches were limited to the current highlighted address book. However, now in 38 you can search in multiple address books.

Expanded Folder Pane columns

In the folder pane (the list of folders on the left), you can now show expanded options (Unread, Total and Size) View|Layout|Folder Pane Columns.

Google OAuth2

Thunderbird 38 supports the OAuth 2.0 protocol now used by Google for authentication.

OAuth 2.0 is the next evolution of the OAuth protocol which was originally created in late 2006. OAuth 2.0 focuses on client developer simplicity while providing specific authorization flows for web applications, desktop applications, mobile phones, and living room devices.

Calendar integration

Starting with Thunderbird 38, the calendaring extension Lightning has been packaged with Thunderbird. This is a big advantage for previous Lightning users, because a compatible version of Lightning is always available with Thunderbird. It is also a great opportunity for Thunderbird users that haven’t been using Lightning as it becomes easier to process emails that contain invitations.

You are also free to disable Lightning at any time in the addons manager, but in order to make it easier to identify future issues it is recommended that you leave it enabled and hide the features you do not use.

Mail Composition Fixes

Some idiosyncrasies in the message compose window have been addressed: The composition font is no longer lost after clicking elsewhere in the message and then returning to the end of the line of the text being entered. Also, the composition font is no longer lost after pasting a bitmap from the clipboard. The inline spell checker no longer loses red underlines.

Inline spell checking: New messages will now always be spell-checked in the language selected in Tools|Options|Composition|Spelling|Language and not as before in the last language used. Also, the spell checking language is now always synchronised between subject and message body. You can even compose messages in different languages concurrently now without having to switch dictionaries.

Font Handling on Linux

Linux provides system fonts “sans-serif”, “serif” and “monospace”. These font names conflict with the generic CSS font family names. Therefore and for compatibility with Thunderbirds on other platforms, the ability to compose messages using these three fonts was removed on Linux. Users who had selected one of these fonts as their default composition font have to select a different font. Instead of “sans-serif”, “serif” or “monospace” users should select “Helvetica, Arial”, “Times” or “Courier” (or “Fixed Width”) respectively.

The three aforementioned Linux system fonts can still be used as default display fonts.

Known Issues

There are a few issues not yet fixed in Thunderbird 38. If you want to contribute, you can check out the bugs to give a hand with patches.

  • Automatic addon compatibility update checks were not completed, so existing addon compatibilities may not be accurate.
  • Copy/Paste into plain text editor deletes newlines from quoted text (bug 1143570)
  • Importing data from Outlook or Eudora crashes (bug 917961)

There are also quite some other small changes and fixes, which you can look up at the official change log.

Was the bird released or did it escape?

Personally, I’m quite happy to see that efforts on the Thunderbird 38 development haven’t declined and after the Thunderbird Summit in Toronto last year, there is definitely traction again. In fact, there were talks to add subbrands for each major Thunderbird release, similar as to Ubuntu does. So for example, Thunderbird 38 would be “Pied Avocet”.

The Thunderbird team has asked me to create a logo proposal for “Pied Avocet” so I was really happy to offer my help on that.

Although the design itself had great feedback, the idea to have a subbrand wasn’t received well. I am however grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the Thunderbird project.

What are your feelings about Thunderbird or email clients in general? Let me know in the comments!