Fixing Thunderbird’s UI

December 11, 2009

For a while I’ve been unhappy with my current email client situation—I shall be outlining why and how exactly in a future blog post—enough to get me seriously thinking about writing my own client. So when Thunderbird 3.0 was released the other day, I gave it a shot and have been using it ‘in anger’ since, just to find out what it’s like.

Previously Thunderbird was a dog, especially the UI. Awkward, old-fashioned, slow and a horrible search feature. Thunderbird 3 fixes a lot of these problems. I like the new toolbar design: less icons, more text. Looks like Aza Raskin got his way there—good! I also like the placement of the Reply, Delete, etc. buttons. Archiving and tagging is great too, though I haven’t yet figured out how to find all emails belonging to a tag.

Of course, there’s still a lot wrong with the UI. I don’t like the window vs. tab inconsistency. I wish they had gotten the email composer to work in a tab (instead of a separate window) for the 3.0 release. To be honest, I’d prefer if there was no separate window or tab feature at all. Take the search functionality, for instance. Both Thunderbird and Gmail get it wrong by diverting me to a completely different page for search results. At least in Gmail the results page looks like a regular folder view.

There are many other niggly little faults. For instance there’s this pathetic Windows-inspired Tools menu that does indeed contain brilliant tools, but sadly also the access to the Preferences, Account Setting and Add-ons dialogs (at least on the Mac they bring Preferences round to the Thunderbird menu where it belongs.) To my mind, all these are settings and should be part of the Preferences dialog. That’s where I always go first, just to remember that Thunderbird makes you go somewhere else to change the account settings.

I have toyed with XUL, the XML language that Thunderbird’s and Firefox’s UIs are written with, in the past. Combined with JavaScript, it’s a horrible, horrible development environment. But is it more horrible than spending hours on end coming up with my own mediocre IMAP client? I don’t think so. Plus, Firefox, Thunderbird and millions of extensions do speak for themselves. And Postbox, a commercial email client built on Thunderbird, shows what’s possible.

So I’ll be giving a shot, customizing the heck out of Thunderbird until it meets my needs. I will start out with the UI, improving among others the things I’ve mentioned above. Last night I hacked together an extension to fix the Preferences dialog malarkey: PrefsNotTools. It’s 1.0 which in my nomenclature means “it works which is not to say it doesn’t need improvement still.” Here are some screenshots:

PrefsNotTools moves the account manager into the Preferences dialog

PrefsNotTools moves the Add-on manager into the Preferences dialog

Let’s see how far I get with the little UI faults. If that turns out to be going anywhere, I can move on to the meat. GMail-style conversations anyone?


5 Responses to “Fixing Thunderbird’s UI”

  1. Keep it going. Those changes indeed make sense.

    Plus I’d love myself some Gmail-style convs.

    The way I navigate to messages now doesn’t work for. It might be that I’ve been using Gmail alot, but it feels more natural.

    If we got to that point, tabs would even make sense, opening a discussion-per-tab.

  2. Installed the addon and works fine, except a quirk on the accounts:

    the height of the window is to large, goes outside of the visible screen – mind you, it doesn’t hide anything, it’s just whitespace.

    The length on the other hand could be a bit bigger, since it’s cutting of some labels.

    OS: Snow Leopard.
    Screen Size: MacBook – 1280×800

  3. PM Says:


    Thanks for this add-on.

    I’ve posted a comment about it on a feature request corresponding to such a change.

    I hope the team will consider implementing this feature in a next version.

    • philikon Says:

      Fantastic, thanks! I wasn’t aware of this bug, but now I realize I was a bit naive thinking nobody else had thought of doing this 🙂

      I like some of their ideas, too, for instance using tabs instead of this big tree on the left. Maybe I’ll toy around with that some day if I can be bothered enough.

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