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    Mozilla's Thunderbird worth taking for a test flight in the war on spam

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver February 15-21; issue 799; High Tech Office column

    Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser is used by most Internet surfers. The company also has a pair of products that are used by a similar majority to access e-mail: Outlook Express is bundled with Windows (as is Internet Explorer); the beefier Outlook (which includes a calendar, contacts list and to-do list) comes as part of the Microsoft Office suite.

    The bad guys have targeted both programs. Most of the e-mail viruses of the past few years have spread themselves by reading addresses in the Microsoft e-mail software's address books. And because both of the Outlooks use Internet Explorer's engine to display HTML-formatted e-mail (any e-mail with graphics and styled-text), they share IE's vulnerabilities in running potentially dangerous programming code.

    Last year, the open-source Mozilla project ( released its free alternative Web browser: Firefox. More recently, it has released an e-mail, newsgroup and RSS program: Thunderbird for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, with features falling between the minimalist Outlook Express and the full Outlook. Installation is straightforward. While it's similar to many open source programs in that it's full of potential customization settings, most can be safely ignored.

    Users are asked whether to make Thunderbird the default e-mail program, and whether to import mail, address books and settings from other software. The program imported my e-mail (etc.) from Eudora without problem.

     Thunderbird supports multiple accounts and users and can be used to view and create both plain text and HTML messages. It supports the POP3 mail accounts commonly used by Internet service providers and the IMAP mail accounts often used within corporate networks to connect to Exchange servers. Downloadable extensions add the ability to work with Hotmail and AOL accounts.

    The default program layout will be immediately familiar to Outlook or Eudora users and can be customized to taste; themes can be downloaded from to further alter the program's look and feel. In addition, optional downloadable extensions can add to Thunderbird's features.

    Unlike Outlook Express, earlier versions of Outlook and the free version of Eudora, Thunderbird includes built-in spam filtering. The filtering learns from what you mark (or unmark) as spam, improving its accuracy over time.

    Addresses in your address book are, by default, added to a white list of addresses that are never considered spam.

    Default settings turn off JavaScript and will not run executable attachments. This makes it more difficult to catch or spread viruses accidentally.

    Thunderbird loads and gets down to work quickly. Compared with some of its competitors, it's like driving a sports car instead of the family sedan. Equally nice is the ability to set criteria to sort messages in your in-box. You could easily add an item to the view menu to see only mail from family members or from your boss.

    If you're currently using Microsoft Outlook Express or a free version of Eudora, give Thunderbird a try. It will do a good job of importing your mail, address books and settings, provide a more secure e-mail experience, and (over time) learn to filter out most of the junk mail that you're currently receiving.

    If you're using Microsoft Outlook, Thunderbird (along with some of its optional extensions) will provide a faster, more secure, full-featured replacement, adding the spam-filtering that users of older Outlook versions lack.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan