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updated 12/16/2004 9:17:03 PM ET 2004-12-17T02:17:03

The Firefox browser has become an instant sensation, in just a few weeks gaining impressively against Microsoft Corp.'s market-leading but malware-beleaguered Internet Explorer.

Security experts worried about IE's flaws and vulnerabilities have recommended Firefox. Others, myself included, were impressed by its innovative features.

The team that put Firefox together, Mozilla Foundation, now offers a free standalone e-mail application, called Thunderbird. But this time, the case for switching from Microsoft products is less compelling.

I just can't see too many people abandoning Microsoft's Outlook, if they use it. Outlook is the gold standard in e-mail programs, despite its $109 list price. Among other things, Thunderbird lacks a calendar application, and its tools for sorting your incoming messages are rather rudimentary.

If you're happy to sacrifice features for something free, anyone running a Windows operating system already has Outlook Express.

So why bother with Thunderbird?

In some ways, Thunderbird is more powerful than Outlook Express.

But its built-in junk mail filter is based solely on what you, the user, consider spam and legitimate mail. Unlike many other anti-spam programs, Thunderbird will do nothing until you "train" the software by marking a few spam messages as "junk" and a few good messages as "not junk."

This approach does reduce the chances of good mail ending up wrongly blocked -- a peril these days with many spam-filtering programs for users who aren't careful.

Thunderbird also offers Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a technology for pulling headlines from news sites and Web journals. Headlines and articles from RSS feeds appear as normal e-mail messages so you can file them away, forward them to a friend or do whatever else you might do to e-mail.

If you have multiple e-mail accounts, you can choose to view them all in one bucket with Thunderbird, or in separate folders sorted by account or type of account, say personal or work. Outlook Express lets you keep accounts separate, but only by creating separate "identities," meaning you can only view one account at a time.

Another plus of Thunderbird is that it automatically enters addresses into your address book as you send out e-mail, making it easier to identify replies as legitimate and to avoid retyping the same addresses over and over. Outlook Express does that only for messages to which you've replied.

Other than that, Thunderbird looks and works like any other e-mail program.

Available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers, the program lets you do standard things like change fonts and sizes, specify whether to include original message in replies and check for new messages after a given number of minutes, which you specify.

It supports the two most popular e-mail protocols, POP3 and IMAP. It will bring in Web-based e-mail from Google, Yahoo and America Online using those protocols (Yahoo is available as part of a $19.99-a-year premium offering). Thunderbird does not, however, support Microsoft's Hotmail or MSN services.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Thunderbird does promise to let you import existing mail, address books and account settings from Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, Netscape 4, Netscape 7 and Mozilla (a combo mail-browser suite from Thunderbird's developers).

In practice, though, not everything worked. I couldn't import an address book from Netscape 4, and my distribution lists on Outlook Express disappeared in the conversion.

And some of the features that trump Outlook Express need work.

To activate RSS feeds, you must manually type in long addresses. Make a typo, and you must start over; the software doesn't let you simply change the one wrong character. Many good RSS programs these days can automatically detect feeds.

And while Thunderbird lets you separate multiple e-mail accounts, there's no easy way to sort them. Rather, they are listed in the order added, not alphabetically or in some other meaningful order.

Perhaps the biggest argument for switching is that Thunderbird is open-source. Two paid developers and hundreds of volunteers jointly created it, releasing the underlying software blueprints for anyone to inspect and improve upon.

That, they argue, produces a better -- and safer -- product than proprietary systems like Microsoft's.

For some people, that's reason enough to switch to Thunderbird. For others, I can't find a compelling reason unless you're dissatisfied with what you are using now.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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