Sunday, April 24, 2011

Add ons to fix common issues

 This little list is really only a few highlights.   I strongly recommend you have a look at my add-on collection at Mozilla.  These are the add-ons I keep recommending  in the support forum, so they are basically commonly requested 'features' that already exist as add-ons, and don't be shy about using the search button on the top of the site.  There are thousands of add-ons. for just about anything you can think of.

Also be sure to have a look at this is one of the largest and most useful collections of add-ons I have encountered not hosted by Mozilla. I have the same level of trust (perhaps even more)  for Keosmos add-ons as those from the official add-on site.  There is no nasty stuff there.

Printing Tools A handy add on that provides many options to modify the layout of printed email, as well as the address book. For those frustrated with the lack of printing options in Thunderbird, this is one for you.

Import / Export Tools One of those must have extensions, adding a simple interface that allows individual mails, or whole folders full to be exported from Thunderbird in a variety of formats, and it can import them again as well. A great tools for archiving old mails.

Send Later  Many people dislike the fact that Thunderbird sends messages as soon as you click on the send button.  They instead prefer full control over their sending as to time.  This extension provides that control.

Quote and Compose Manager  This add-on adds functionality to the composer in Thunderbird.  It also has an option to stabilize fonts which is a long running bug which drives many to distraction.

A little about how email Clients get Email from the server

I am writing this because there appears to be considerable misunderstanding about just how the process works. I see in support forums comments like

"My mail works just fine, I have logged into it from my providers web site"

All this does is prove that you know the current account password and the login name your provider has supplied. It also gives a reassurance that their mail system is still working. Other than that it does not help with the process of making your mail client work.

Before we can talk about how, a little about the protocols involved

Mail is really a collection of communication protocols. Mail clients 'talk' to the mail server to get your mail, and unless they talk to same language as the mail server nothing works. There are three common communication protocols in use that most of us use at one time or another.

This is a closed protocol owned by Microsoft and is the native language that outlook uses to talk to Microsoft Exchange servers. Because it is proprietary very few mail clients even attempt to use it. A large part of the reason is that Home users (the biggest segment of mail users who have control of their own mail) don't, as a general rule, have an exchange server running in the corner of the lounge room to supply their own mail domain.

A sychronised mail access method which is designed from the ground up to keep your messages on the mail server. This is ideal for the folks that like to get their mail on a computer a phone and other devices and have things just synchronise between them so that every device shows the same thing. The draw back of this protocol is that if the provider deletes your account you may loose everything because of the synchronisation.

The oldest of the mail protocols, and by far the one most people have been using until the last few years. This protocol is designed to act in a very similar way to the snail mail service. You address a letter (email) and it is delivered to the recipients mail box where they download it and it is deleted from the server.

POP does not keep messages anywhere but in the mail client that downloaded them. It is very difficult do synchronise messages between devices but is quite reliable, for a protocol that does not guarantee delivery.

Connecting the pieces

When you get your email client, it knows nothing of you or your mail. You need to tell it about you and your mail provider and in the process tell it which of these protocols are to be used and exactly how to find your mail out there in the internet. There are about a dozen different setting and methods of connecting. These options are set by the mail provider and the client MUST match them exactly for the process to work.

The authors of mail clients understand that the average person is somewhat daunted by the intricacies of these setting and try and streamline the process to expose their newest convert to as little of the process as possible. Hence wizards appear to guide us through what is a veritable mine field of accounts, password protocols and ports.

So how does it go so wrong?

There are a number of reasons for this. From good old fashioned human error right through to computer programs that think they know better and use the wrong settings.

It is the computer programs that think they know better that is my interest here. With the advent of ubiquitous anti virus programs and firewalls downloading your mail has just become a lot harder because now we have a couple of other hurdles to step through before the mail client can actually talk to the server.

Have you ever wondered how your anti virus program manages to 'scan' your incoming and outgoing mail?
It is a shame that most people never even consider this as it is something of a wonder, and a nasty imposition at the same time. Almost all anti virus programs set themselves up as what is known as a proxy server. As a proxy, ALL communications are routed through that proxy. This is very good for the anti virus program (and you in not getting virii) but it can be bad for the email client. Those protocols I mentioned earlier rely on things happening in a set order in a timely fashion. If the proxy spends to much time scanning and re routing messages, things go to hell in a hand basket. You get a message from your mail client that simply says timeout. No mention of the fact that it is the anti virus program is causing it. Your mail client does not even know that the anti virus has insinuated itself into the process.

Other problems can occur if the proxy is in any way less than perfect. Messages can be truncated, not delivered to the mail server or simply just disappear into the ether. Again your mail client will have no knowledge of this occurring and will continue to think it has done it's job or that the mail server has a problem and give you erroneous error messages about the mail server.


A firewall is supposed to control message traffic to and from your computer and restrict it to what you have approved. Very simple and quite effective in principle. Very complex and exceedingly tiresome to set up in practice. It used to be a specialty in computing and still is in big organisations and data centres. The average person however is not going to pay a specialist to come in an set up their firewall, so again with the wizards. The vendors of firewalls have done a huge amount of work to take what is a complex process and turn it into a point and click process. It is this work that lays the trap for the unsuspecting customer to stop everything in it's tracks.

You are typing away and your firewall helpfully pops up a message telling you that some program is trying to access the internet. Would you like to allow or disallow this. While really good in theory many bad firewall decisions are made based on the default button on that dialog.

Many people when typing look at the keyboard when they type, not at the screen. So they have no idea that they just clicked yes to the dialog that they did not see. Suddenly their shiny new email program does not work right. It can't send mail or some other feature does not look right. The first obvious point of call is the email program. You have changed nothing have you, so it must be the email program.

I lost my mail (IMAP)

It is a constant complaint, that mail just disappears from the thunderbird folders.  I have used the program for years without any issue but one.  So why has my experience been so different! the answer to that is I understand the email process and go looking for the obvious traps that other don't know to look for.

Todays I am going to look at the things that make mail disappear in IMAP accounts.

The first of these is inherently linked to the fundamental difference between IMAP and POP mail and for those that are used to POP, it is a real trap.  Most Mail providers, (excluding the free ones, ironic huh), only offer limited mail storage on the server and instead institute an aging process which will automatically delete mails when they reach a certain time from the date delivered.  If your mail is consistently disappearing if it is 30 days old, this is most likely the cause. The time frame may vary, but it will be consistent accross all of your folders.

It has become common for people to access their mail on more than one device often a mobile phone and a computer.  Mobile phones almost ALL use the IMAP protocol to get mail.  This is partially as people rarely want to do more email on their phone than they have to, and using IMAP leaves a copy on the server to be downloaded onto the computer, but mainly because it provides synchronization of mail between devices.  This synchronization is all good, until you throw a mail client into the mix that is configured as POP.   What happens is that POP deletes the mail off the server as soon as it downloads it,  or in the case of Thunderbird 7 days latter.  The net result is that the mail inexplicably disappears from the other devices as soon as it is deleted by the POP client.  Welcome to the wonderful world of synchronized mail on devices.

The third of the I lost my mail is simply not understanding the synchronized nature of IMAP.  The phone memory is getting full so delete some mail to free space. I have a copy on the desktop anyway.  Not any more you don't.  Deleting it on the phone with automatically lead to it being deleted on the server and the other connected devices as soon as they connect to the server.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Windows Hibernation :- Should be Windows accessory to lose your data and crash your applications.

Poking around support forums has made one thing abundantly clear.
Windows hibernation is really a disaster! It is the cause of most problems people have with their software being erratic and performing strangely. Device drivers don't 'wake up' they 'wake up dead' programs that access the internet are particularly vulnerable to this craziness and it is time for the user to stop using hibernation.

If you want a trouble free time with windows (any version) don't use hibernation or sleep modes.

Turn it on and off often. Windows need to be booted from a turned off state on a regular basis. Don't let the marketing people ruin your day. Ignore them and turn your computer OFF when not in use.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thunderbird is bogged down

Thunderbird is spending more and more efforts into social media, such as the F1 extension. Unfortunately I think the Thunderbird drivers are falling in the smart phone trap.

These days you read a review on a new phone and the one extremely important things about the phone does not get a mention.

'Is it a good telephone'. Is the reception clear, in the aerial sufficient to allow it work at a reasonable distance from the tower, is making a call intuitive. These things just don't rate at all.

Volumes are spent on app stores and available apps, much verbiage is wasted on touch screens and gesture driven commands. At the end of the review you are none the wiser if the product is actually good at doing it's job, that is what is is like as a phone?

Recently the Thunderbird project also appear to be off on this glitz and glamor model. Thunderbird does not have anything more than 'adequate' message compose functions. The calendar features appear to be languishing in a black hole from which I am uncertain if it will ever arise.

What is Thunderbird?

Seriously for those that don't know you probably need to read this. But for this discussion is is a mail and news client. The basic underpinning of Thunderbird is EMail and to a lesser extent News (NNTP).

In the headlong rush to get into the 'new media' and make themselves relevant, I believe than the Mozilla team risks forgetting their roots. They are also forgetting that their real strength lies with email. Small business is crying out for an Outlook replacement and very many are opting for Thunderbird as it is in many ways similar. Mozilla is seriously letting this group down wish their policy of targeting home users. Come on guys, these home users are often quite happy with the web interface offered by their provider. Given that Yahoo and Hotmail alone account for 30% of 'email clients' this is a segment that is notoriously hard to win people over from. The 30% who are using Outlook 2003 and earlier are clearly the group where the converts will come from. When they buy their new PC with Windows 7 and find Outlook does not work with it they will be out there looking for a replacement. These are the people who expect their email client to have a good editor. They expect it to just work, and most of all they are not interested in the process or the security.

Long have users been requesting that Thunderbirds editor be improved. This is little wonder, it really was quite good when Mozilla inherited it from Netscape 13 years ago, but it has had very little real work done to improve it in the years since. It is dated, clunky and creaking at the seams trying to write to a 21st century standard. I applaud the work being done by Jonathan Protzenko in trying the shoe horn CKEditor into Thunderbird as a replacement editor, but there does not appear to be any impetus to move that sort of project forward any faster than when Jonathan as a PhD student finds spare time. Given that he is also behind the conversations add on he is indeed a busy fellow.

When you look at the 'new' features currently in Miramar (3.3) there is really little more than inherited changes from the change of Geko versions and bug fixes.

The new account wizard was launched in version 3 and was a debacle reminiscent of the worst in software development. It simply did not work. The new and improved version in Miramar works, but still leaves a lot to be desired. It locates settings for the account, and creates the account. If the setting in the database don't work it blithely continues as if they did, because at no point are they tested. The options to change accounts to and from POP are almost random, given that the database rarely contains all the working settings for a provider, only those favoured by the developers. If the user want to create a POP account they are in a real catch 22.

Thunderbird needs integration to other 'office' products. The world as a whole has come to expect mail merge to be a feature of email. They also expect the editor to belong to the same family of product as their office suite. As it stands in Thunderbird using anything other than the aging edit of really a role of the dice. Sometimes it will work and sometime it will not.

While supporting Thunderbird it has become obvious that the following other enhancements are important to users.

  • Simple passwords on their account/ profile to block casual snooping. This is available here.
  • Vacation responses which is available here
  • The ability to change profiles without closing and re opening the program.
  • Synchronisation of profile data between devices
  • An archive that actually archives (That is to an archive device)
  • An account and data transfer wizard that lets people press a button and have their account/profile bundled up ready for their new computer. Microsoft solved most of this years ago with PST files. Why can't Thunderbird do something?
As I sit here writing this I receive an email from the Thunderbird planning mailing list from someone complaining about the impenetrable mess that has become the lot of the contributor. It also suggests that the future includes chat and an integrated calendar.