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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

E-Mail Race Is Picking Up the Pace

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page F07

Does anybody care about e-mail anymore?

You might think not, looking at the sleepy state of the market for consumer mail software in Windows. One of the two most widely used programs in this category, Microsoft's Outlook Express, has not had a meaningful update since 1999, save security fixes for its appalling history of vulnerabilities. The other is Microsoft's bloated, corporate-centric Outlook, normally sold only with its Office suite for $150 and up. These are not exactly programs that inspire love.

That kind of situation ought to be ripe for exploitation by competitors offering better programs. Yet for several years running, the only serious challenge to Microsoft's not-so-dynamic duo has come from Web-mail sites such as Yahoo Mail and Google's Gmail (which, since they don't work as quickly as a stand-alone program and can't be used offline, don't amount to a viable alternative for many users).


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This dormant market is finally waking up. One of the oldest mail programs, Qualcomm's Eudora (Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X, www.eudora.com), is coming off a string of recent updates. The program (named after the writer Eudora Welty) comes in three versions: a free but limited release, a more capable free download subsidized by easily ignored ads in a corner of the screen, and a $50 ad-free edition that adds spam filtering.

Another, Mozilla Thunderbird (Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X, Linux, www.mozilla.org), debuted in December as a refined version of what's built into the Mozilla browser. Thunderbird is free and open-source.

Both programs offer some extraordinarily well-done features. But as a whole, they could use more time in the oven.

Trouble commences with a move from Outlook Express or Outlook. Neither Eudora nor Thunderbird ever managed a full transfer of anything beyond e-mail stored in the Microsoft programs. Eudora routinely mangled address books and settings, sometimes ignoring any second or third e-mail accounts. Thunderbird imported Outlook contact lists accurately but didn't copy any Outlook account settings; when reading Outlook Express data, it missed many secondary details.

Eudora and Thunderbird can connect to the two main types of e-mail account, the Post Office Protocol (POP) service almost every Internet provider offers and a better but harder-to-find one called Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). But each feels at home in only one of these standards. Eudora is terrific with POP but slow and clumsy with IMAP; Thunderbird's near-peerless IMAP performance contrasts with POP support that omits a few options handy when checking one account from two computers.

A similar imbalance exists in their writing and replying tools. Eudora is the fastest game in town, thanks to an extensive array of keyboard shortcuts and time-saving features such as "stationery," prefab replies you can dash off with two mouse clicks. Thunderbird lacks those refinements -- until a 1.1 update arrives in March, it can't even check your spelling as you type -- but offers easier ways to liven up messages with text styles and graphics.

In everyday operation, Eudora, first released in 1988, shows its age badly. It routinely locks up briefly while processing messages and too often crashes outright. The software is confusing to learn, between its peculiar jargon (it calls accounts "personalities") and its Options window's puzzling list of 31 often-redundant categories.


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