Using Thunderbird as an Outlook Replacement

In the next five years we anticipate that we’ll grow to have a somewhat sizable staff, probably 10-15 people. A few programmers, a book-keeper, a “secretary” (or whatever the politically correct term is now), a warehouse employee for Detailed Image for packing and shipping, a customer service rep, etc. One of the biggest hidden costs for an upstart bootstrapped company like us is software. We have the same problem you do: we want to use the open-source alternative but it always lacks the functionality of the paid counterpart.

The solution we’ve come up with is to use Open Source for everyone’s laptop, and have one “master” desktop with legitimate paid versions of every software we need. So our laptops will run Open Office as an office suite, Mozilla Thunderbird as an email client, as a photo editing software, etc…and the high performance desktop will have the entire Adobe Suite, the entire Microsoft Office Suite, and any other expensive software we need. We estimate that 95% of tasks can be accomplished with the Open Source version, but if someone really needs Adobe Acrobat or Photoshop they can use our kickass desktop. This will keep us 100% legal with the latest software without spending $20k/year on software licenses.

We’re going to implement this over the course of the next year. Once we find a warehouse/office space (still looking) we’ll build the desktop and make the transition. In the meantime, I’m testing all of the software out for functionality and using it as part of my day-to-day to see which features the Open Source version doesn’t have and if that will be OK.

When we launched Faceup, I decided to do all of my email and scheduling using Mozilla Thunderbird instead of Outlook. I run the two side-by-side now, and I must say I’m VERY impressed with Thunderbird. It does take a little configuration and a few plugins to up the functionality, but I’d have to say if I were evaluating the software packages based on my needs it’d be a wash.

The one thing Thunderbird lacks is Mail Merge, which I love using in Outlook when I have to send an email to 15-20 people and want to insert their name into the message to customize it. No biggie though – I’ll just use the desktop for that for the once every few months I need it. But Thunderbird has one thing that Outlook doesn’t (at least to my knowledge): HTML email signatures. I program the HTML file, including CSS, and just link my email account to the local file that I can change any time I want – very cool.

Thunderbird is the first Open Source software I’ve evaluated to this extent, but I’m wholly satisfied and loving our cost-saving software plan more and more. As I said though, it does require more configuration than Outlook. Here’s a copy of the info I posted on our internal Wiki that we use to share information throughout the company:

Installing Mozilla Thunderbird as an Email Client

  1. Download from Mozilla Website
  2. Install and start software
  3. It will prompt you to add a new email account (or Tools -> Account Settings -> Add Account)
  4. It will walk you through creating an account, similar to the way Outlook does. Make sure to make the Incoming User Name your full email address (i.e., not adam).
  5. Configure account by going to Tools -> Account Settings
    1. To create a signature – make an HTML file with your signature in it and save it to your local hard drive. Under Account Settings, check Attach This Signature and browse to locate your HTML file.
    2. To have mail go to separate inboxes (instead of all accounts going to the global one) – Select Server Settings -> Advanced -> Inbox for this server’s account
    3. For outgoing mail to work – Select Outgoing Server (SMTP). If it’s your first email account, edit the profile to use your full email address again (i.e., not adam). If it’s an additional email account, add a new profile for the account.
    4. To handle email replies like Outlook does – select Composition & Adressing -> Automatically quote the original message when replying -> Then, start my reply above the quote -> and place my signature below my reply (above the quote).
    5. Under Server Settings, make sure that Check for new messages at startup, Check for new messages every X minutes, and Automatically download new messages are all checked.
  6. To have Calendar and Task list functions, install Lightning
  7. To forward messages inline (and not as an attachment), go to Tools -> Options -> Composition -> Forward Messages -> Inline

4 comments on Using Thunderbird as an Outlook Replacement

  1. Peter says:

    I’m looking for open source software, including an Outlook replacement, mainly to avoid having to purchase lots of licenses for a non-profit I’m working with. They have many donated computers with different software versions and usually no licenses because the original owners have lost them. I think Thunderbird with the right plugins will work for them.

    It would be good to see plugins like those available for Outlook also available for Thunderbird from social networks such as LinkedIn, Xing etc.

    Outlook 2003 does have the ability to create HTML signatures. They tend to mess up if they have graphics included and someone replies to your message using plain text

  2. Adam McFarland says:

    Thanks for commenting Peter. The great thing about Thunderbird is the active development community (much like Firefox) that builds all sorts of extensions that pick up where the app leaves off. Hopefully you’ll be able to find everything you need.

    Good luck!

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