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      “Why does Thunderbird look so old, and why does it take so long to change?”

      If that actually does bother anyone, can’t they just use a different email client? Wouldn’t it be better to keep Thunderbird working with its existing UI, for those of us that have gotten used to it over the past 20 years?

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        I think Thunderbird has lost it’s priorities.

        No one actually cares how modern an email client looks. No one is wearing their email client on their head as a fashion statement. No one is reading their email in closet because they can’t stand the idea that someone would peak over their shoulder and see them using UI from 2004.

        Thunderbird needs some reorganization and usability updates but modernizing the design is not one of them.

        Having worked at plenty of software companies I often find rewrites are often just large feature requests cobbled together under the guise of rewriting the base of the application as the only way to achieve the cluster of new features. Is the old software really that bad or has it grown in a disorganized way and/or do you just not understand it?

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          I dunno, I won’t use a mail app that looks weird and old. I’d consider using Thunderbird if it looked good and worked better than Mail.app.

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            real talk: Thunderbird looks better than it did a couple years back! I booted into it for the first time in 4 or so years and was like “oh this is pretty good”

            Granted I’m in KDE and before I was using it in Mac. But I feel like it’s pretty good for “email power usage”.

            There’s a legit complaint about how the panes are laid out by default, but I think that you can get pretty far by just moving around existing components.

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          UI and UI conventions for email have been pretty continuously evolving since we first got GUI mail clients. And that’s without considering that UI conventions in general evolve over time; an application that doesn’t match the UI conventions of the surrounding system is likely to see itself replaced by one that does.

          Which is why keeping the same UI for decades on end is not something that usually works in mass-market software.

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            I can confidently say I’ve never stopped using a useful piece of software because they hadn’t updated their UI to keep up with whatever fashion trend is currently hip. On the other hand, I have (repeatedly) stopped using software after a UI overhaul screwed up my existing comfort with the software, opening the door for me to look around and see what other software, while equally alien, might have better functionality.

            Messing with the look and feel of your application is an exercise in wagering your existing users in pursuit of new ones. In commercial projects, that can often make sense. In FLOSS, it rarely does, as your existing users, particularly those that will be the most annoyed by changes to their workflows, are also the most likely to contribute to the project, either through thorough bug reports or pull requests.

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              I think it is important to consider the possibility that you are not representative of the mass-market software user. Or, more bluntly: if you were representative of the mass-market software user, the market would behave very differently than what we observe.

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                I dunno, I don’t think Thunderbird users in general are representative of the mass-market software user. Most of those are just using Gmail or Outlook.com. Desktop MUA users are few and far between these days and use them specifically because they have specialized mail management requirements.

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                I don’t see where APhilisophicalCat claims to be “representative of the mass-market software user”. I rather would interpret their “In commercial projects, that can often make sense. In FLOSS, it rarely does” as disagreeing with you on whether Thunderbird is “mass-market software”. (I don’t use Thunderbird and I claim no stake in this.)

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                  I think the people building Thunderbird think of it as, or at least aspire to it being, a mass-market application.

                  (standard disclaimer: I am a former employee of the Mozilla Corporation; I have not worked there since the mid-2010s; when I did work there the stuff I worked on wasn’t related to Thunderbird; I am expressing my own personal opinion based on reading the public communications of the Thunderbird team rather than any sort of lingering insider knowledge or perspective)

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            I don’t think things evolved, I think we just have a bunch of ways to stylize a list and where buttons to other lists might go. There are trends but at the end of the day you’re reading a list of things.

            The point I was trying to make is that sometimes rewrites are just shifting complexity and that you can satisfy both crowds by working on an old tech stack. Not that there isn’t a market for whatever-UI-trend email apps.

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              I don’t think things evolved, I think we just have a bunch of ways to stylize a list and where buttons to other lists might go.

              I remember when Gmail first came out, and introduced a broad audience to the switch from email clients that present things in terms of individual messages, to clients that present things in terms of conversations.

              From an underlying technical perspective this may feel like nothing – just two ways of styling lists, why does it matter? – but from a user interface and experience perspective it was a gigantic shift. It’s rare these days to see an email client or interface that still clings to the pre-Gmail message-based UI conventions.

              The same is true for other UI conventions like labeling/tagging, “snooze” functions, etc. etc. Sure, in some sense your inbox is still a list or at most a list of trees, but there are many different ways to present such a thing, and which way you choose to present does in fact matter to end users.

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                Exactly and there isn’t one crowd; you should aim to appease both. Even if Gmail started a new trend.

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          I think a lot of people don’t like using “ugly” software. Definitely matters more to nontechies than it does to techies, I think.

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            even techies will look elsewhere if the app gives you the vibe of something that seems to be from the windows 2000 era and thus probably as other problems too (let’s say scaling)

            But current thunderbird on the desktop looks fine ?!

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              There’s a certain group (small?) that likes these old interfaces though. Enough that things like SerenityOS are quite popular. Or maybe it’s just me.

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                I can appreciate a very technical but functional UI where you can find everything you need, but it doesn’t look that fresh. And then there is also the “jankynes” factor, like Handbrake, which looks very janky, but exposes all ffmpeg configuration flags as a UI. In my experience there is a big divide between applications that just look old but provide a lot of functionality, even looking janky at first - and apps that simply got thrown together in a short time and weren’t updated to keep up with modern requirements. One example for the latter is looking at f-droid applications, where a very old looking app can be a good indicator that it has never been updated to modern android permission requirements. Or that your desktop application just doesn’t support scaling and is either tiny on high-DPI or blurry - god forbid you move it between different DPI displays.

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                Yup, that’s why Sylpheed/Claws were considered examples of a great UI for desktop email: https://www.claws-mail.org/screenshots.php

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            Techies are just as, if not more, aesthetically conscious when it comes to software than non-techies. They just have different aesthetic preferences.

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          I agree with the above. I’d much prefer if this announcement was about fundamental things related to the internals of thunderbird, not the chrome.

          • Random slowness due to background processes
          • Weird display issues when loading email folders which haven’t been opened for a while
          • No ability to import/export to other email formats
          • Search and indexing – serious improvements here would be very welcome

          I say this as a long-time thunderbird user, who loves the app and hopes to continue using it (my thunderbird profile is 11 years old). Don’t fix what’s not broken, but do fix what is.

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        If that actually does bother anyone, can’t they just use a different email client?

        Name one other usable, open-source, mail client that runs on Windows.

        Looking old covers a lot of things. There are a bunch of things in the Thunderbird that are annoying and probably hard to fix without some significant redesign. Off the top of my head:

        • it sometimes gets confused by resolution changes (when you plug in an external monitor or use Remote Desktop) and you end up with a window that’s too small to resize and have to restart the app.
        • It does a load of blocking things on the main thread, which can cause the UI to freeze in exciting ways.
        • It has modal dialogs for a bunch of things, which freeze other parts of the UI.
        • The settings interface is hard to find and hard to navigate: different settings are split between different items in different top-level menus.
        • The way the text widget is built makes it impossible to switch between plain and rich text compose if you change your mind part way through writing.

        It’s also not clear to me how well the HTML email renderer view is sandboxed. Apple’s Mail.app opens emails in separate sandboxed renderer processes, I’m not sure the extent to which Thunderbird can take advantage of this underlying functionality from Firefox because it’s designed to isolate tabs and all of Thunderbird’s data lives in one tab.

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          Sylpheed? But now we’re talking about super-esoteric software. I can’t imagine the user that uses sylpheed and thinks “Thunderbird isn’t usable enough”.

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        familiarity is a usability feature. And I’m sure most UX people are aware of this on some level, but it’s rare to see it articulated

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      Instead of an “interface from scratch” (as in perhaps yet another padding bloated modern looking web-app-like fluffy UI) how about a few features that could actually improve the workflow, like for example:

      • notifications that actually work – I can’t believe it, but Thunderbird, in 2023, still doesn’t have a proper email notification feature; it’s either all-on or all-off; I would like to be able to pick-and-choose which emails I want to be notified about!

      • editing the actual email text in one’s favorite text editor – let’s face it, everyone has their favorite text editor, be it emacs, vi or one’s own hack (like my own sce), and most would like to just use that instead of the built-in Thunderbird editor;

      • proper thread support – that works across folders, and if possible across email accounts; at the moment it works only inside the same folder, which however breaks when using with a GMail IMAP account (because a thread can be spread between multiple labels which Thunderbird sees as folders;) (thus perhaps GMail’s fault, but Thunderbird doesn’t help either;)

      • search – I use either GMail for that or notmuch; (why not just integrate notmuch for example?)

      • efficiency – having a GMail account with more than 100K emails almost breaks Thunderbird; god forbid I click the Archive folder… (notmuch and some of it’s UI’s handle ~1M emails without a problem;)

      • proper maildir support – perhaps not most use maildir, but perhaps a small minority of Thunderbird users would prefer it; (for example for easier backups or processing outside Thunderbird;) currently it kind-of supports it, but not quite… (for example notmuch is not able to import perhaps 10% of the emails in what Thunderbird calls maildir;)

      • better customization of viewing fonts and colors – something that can actually improve the UI and doesn’t require a complete rewrite;

      • system-tray icon and menu – many applications had that even on Windows 95! can’t Thunderbird get one in 2023?

      And lastly, i’ve just ps axf my laptop and started counting processes:

      • Firefox – each instance at a minimum 7 processes, one with ~15;
      • Discord, Slack – ~8;
      • Thunderbird – =2`;

      Please don’t transform Thunderbird in yet another “mini-kubernetes-on-my-laptop” just for reading an email which essentially is a plain-text file… I already spend 1-2 GiB each for Discord, Slack, Skype and other “modern web-apps”; I just want a desktop-app!

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        And that’s where Thunderbird suddenly has to decide where to go. I don’t need a new search, I don’t need VIM integration for a GUI application (there are enough CLI mail clients for that), I want good process isolation, so if it is using multiple processes, I don’t care. And please no systray icon, windows will throw it inside the bag of tray-icons anyway, not to ever be seen again, possibly resurfacing by showing notifications in the worst possible moment.

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        You describe all the thing you would like Thunderbird to do, all of which require more RAM, and potentially separate processes to implement sensibly, but you also describe it as basically a plain text file viewer.

        It is of course possible to keep a relatively low RAM footprint while supporting many of the features you are asking for, but I think you might have to accept a few compromises.

        For example: The issues with dealing with large amount of email (in my experience as a mail client developer) seem likely to stem from using an unsophisticated architecture.

        Moving to something that is more robust and also operates ‘behind the scenes’ to keep the UI snappy not only means a lot of work, and a lot of async operations - which can be more difficult to reason about and test - but also lots of UI redesign and potential confusion for non-power users, as they struggle to understand what is going on.

        I once tried to automatically switch the UI of my client between sync and async (with visibility of background operations) depending on length of operation, but this was made for very complex code and a user experience that didn’t really work.

        Look at Outlook for an example of how even huge efforts can result in a client which is half brilliant and half terrible. I’m sure the Thunderbird team have to weigh up the options here.

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          I completely disagree with most of these assumptions, namely:

          • “all of which require more RAM” – not necessarily; more storage space yes, but more RAM no; unless one wants to keep everything in memory; for example I am willing to pay storage space and some CPU time on ingestion, but have everything indexed and ready to go when needed;

          • “separate processes to implement sensibly” – perhaps yes, perhaps no; I accept (and in fact would prefer) a tool to spawn a sub-process to do some work; however I am less happy with a tool that keeps ~10 processes around; (I understand why current browsers keep ~10+ processes, because each could belong to a different domain / site; however why does Discord / Slack / Skype / any-other-Electron-based-app need 10 processes? to separate what from who?)

          • “async operations to keep the UI snappy” – not necessarily; if the operation doesn’t take 1 minute (like anything in Thunderbird seems to take when you have a few accounts), then I’m happy with a turning wheel that makes me wait a bit; (and in fact, no operation should take 1 minute to execute; for example notmuch answers any query within seconds, although it has indexed 1M emails;)

          • “non-power users” – are they actually using Thunderbird? Because I bet they have long switched to GMail (or similar) or to a phone / tablet (which Thunderbird doesn’t support yet);

          (BTW, a few years ago I’ve started implementing my own email client as a web-application on-top of notmuch; and I tried to implement it old-school with plain HTML, obviously without composing support, and it worked great.)

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      Thunderbird needs a better, unified index system. Right now it has tons of .msf files, Global Search index, and whatever else has accreted over the years. These should all go into a single, consistent SQLite database so there’s a single source of truth for ‘what messages do I have, where, and what’s in them’.

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      I don’t care about the old UI. I do care that they can’t manage to render fonts at the same size consistently across emails. This has been an issue for years and it makes Thunderbird really annoying to use. A lot of users have raised this issue, but it’s never been addressed. I use Claws-Mail instead (because of this one issue). The Claws-Mail UI is even more ancient but the consistency of the font rendering is perfect.

      It also seems to me that they should depart from or fork Firefox so that they don’t have to deal with repeated breaking changes.

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        I don’t want fonts in my email at all. I want plain text, everywhere, all the time. I’d like my client to strip all formatting from incoming email, by default, every time, and never ever send formatting to anyone ever.


        And this is part of the problem, I think: It’s not possible to be all things to all men.

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          By font-rendering in Claws-Mail, I just meant size. I should have been more precise. My incoming email is all displayed in plain text and my sent mail goes out in plain text.

          My employer uses Office365. It’s non-negotiable and not worth fighting over given how much I love the work and the people (they do know my opinions, but I don’t press them). Anyways, I use the latest version of the Outlook client, which does render all emails in plain text if you set that up (and it does it at a consistent font size too). It also sends in plain text. Whether it passes through formatting that I never see (in the original message content to which I’m replying), I’m not sure.

          Edit: actually, Outlook does set a font type, even in plain-text, so it can’t be truly “plain text.”

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            Edit: actually, Outlook does set a font type, even in plain-text, so it can’t be truly “plain text.”

            Exactly so. Which means that the earlier paras are – well, just wrong, AFAICS.

            Probably a good job I didn’t reply to the version I got in my inbox. ;-)

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      While everyone is spouting out how great this will be, I don’t see any mention really of how this will affect extensions. Thunderbird could be doing a huge disservice to their base with that. Or maybe the extension community isn’t big enough to matter?

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        Most of them were killed off by the recent transition to the Firefox Quantum base and the consequent death of XUL, AFAICS.