From Postbox back to Thunderbird

July 23, 2023

I am a long time email user. (Yes, I’ve even used Gnus to read my mail!) Seven years ago or so, when it looked like Thunderbird would no longer be maintained, I switched to Postbox to read my mail. I was happy with it, especially with its clear and modern UI and its support for tagging email. But now Postbox appears less well maintained: there are UI bugs, it has become slow and unresponsive, and updates are few. So I decided to return to Thunderbird, especially now that it properly supports a vertical, fully column based view that I liked in Postbox, using the new card view to summarise messages in the message list.

Migration was relatively easy, because Postbox actually is a fork from Thunderbird and therefore almost all of its internals work the same. For example, I could simply copy old archive files into my new Thunderbird profile folder, and access all my archived emails like before (including their tags, see below).

I had to make some adaptions though to make myself happy.

First of all, the Thunderbird UI needed some tweaking. Even though the latest version looks much fresher than its predecessors, there is still some old UI dust remaining from older versions that needed cleaning up (like the ugly separation lines between messages in the message list). Also, I wanted it to look a bit more like Postbox. Luckily you can adjust the layout with a user defined style sheet. Simply add a userChrome.css in the chrome directory of your Thunderbird profile directory. Here is the one I created. By default userChrome.css usage is disabled in Thunderbird Email. To enable it you need to set toolkit.legacyUserProfileCustomizations.stylesheets to true using Thunderbird’s Config Editor. See these instructions on how to do so.

Also I use tagging a lot to organise my email. I prefer to use the standard archiving process offered by Postbox/Thunderbird over saving emails in topic based folders. Instead of having to decide which folder an email should be archived in (perhaps sometimes even copying emails to several folders to be sure), I can easily add different tags to an email, and use the standard Thunderbird archiving method to archive them for later. Postbox offered a great UI to easily tag emails (selecting the tags from a large list using autocompletion). Thunderbird doesn’t have that, so I wrote an extension to emulate the Postbox UI somewhat (with limitations due to Thunderbird quirks that hopefully get resolved).

It is worth noting that Thunderbird typically stores the tags assigned to an email with the email itself using the X-Mozilla-Keys header, except for mails that arrive over IMAP (and that are later archived). To ensure the tags are stored with the emails themselves in the archive folder, note that compacting a folder will store tag information within the emails in that folder. Unfortunately, Thunderbird ignores a compact command for folders to which only messages have been added since the last compact command. To force compacting a folder, therefore first add a dummy messages to it, and immediately delete it, before requesting the compact operation. This way, crashes corrupting the Thunderbird databases will not mess up your tags.

Moreover, it allows you to migrate mail archives with their tags from one installation to another. As explained above, this also worked for me when migrating from Postbox back to Thunderbird as Postbox is essentially a fork of Thunderbird. There is one thing you have to do after the migration though: enter the tags manually into the new installation using the Manage Tags… feature. Otherwise they will not be shown in your emails (even though they are in fact there). Be sure to enter the tags exactly like the were in the previous installation.

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