Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Making the switch to Thunderbird easier

Over at Spread Firefox, Asa has a post about customising Firefox and Thunderbird for users of particular ISPs, specifically with regard to settings. So you could add the “AOL pack” to Thunderbird and, upon providing your AOL signin details, will have set up access to your AOL mail accounts without you needing to know what their IMAP server is called or whether you need to enable TLS for their SMTP server, and so on.

I reckon this could be taken one step further, especially with Thunderbird. TB does a good job of migrating settings from other applications like Outlook Express, but what about migrating from AOL? Or setting up Thunderbird for your Gmail account? There’s instructions out there but they’re a bit over-complicated for ‘mom-and-pop’ users.
So I propose an ehnancement to the Account Settings Wizard that is run on TB’s first launch (if it hasn’t had settings migrated from another application) and through ‘Add Account’ in the Account Settings dialog. I’ve done some ‘screenshots’ which are mockups done in MS Paint showing how I think this could be done.
The opening screen would have a new option (see screenshot 1) called Automatic Setup, which would be the default. When selected, this would pull a file from, say,, which contained a list of ISPs where the settings were known, sorted by country.
In the next screen (see screenshot 2) the user would select their country (TB could default this to the locale of the operating system), and then a list of ISPs where settings were known would be presented. All countries would have a ‘none of the above’ option which would let the user enter the details manually, effectively taking them back to step 1, since it’s unlikely we’ll be able to cover every ISP in the world. The user selects their ISP and then hits Next, at which point Thunderbird downloads a file containing full details of the server and its settings – there’s already an RDF namespace for it.
In the final screen (3 screens is probably quite enough, unless a fourth ‘summary’ screen is warranted), the user would enter their user name and password for that ISP (see screenshot 3). Upon clicking Finish, Thunderbird would then set up the mail and newsgroup accounts using that user’s details and take them back to the main interface.
I think this could significantly reduce the barriers that are stopping people from trying out Thunderbird and the potential to boost its usage. It’s probably too late now for a feature like this to be included in Thunderbird 1.1 but it would be nice for 1.5, or whatever the next release is.


  1. I’ve been working on an autoconfig method to make setting up a mail client as simple as possible.
    It’s all theory at this point… but something I’m looking at.

  2. This would be a wonderful idea Neil. It fits perfectly into the goals of the Firefox/Thunderbird projects.
    Thunderbird has a big gap that people must cross to use it exactly for the reason that unless you are well experienced with the Internet, you probably have no clue on how to setup an e-mail client.
    This would fix it. Wonderful work.

  3. But I had to set up Outlook Express (bless me it was a long time ago) for my parents. So I don’t they could really handle that! So, us kiddies would still have to set it up… might try and get them to switch to Thunderbird (done Firefox already), then they can tell me what it’s like!