March 7, 2008

Spicebird: Thunderbird, Lightning, and a dash of collaborative flavor

Author: Nathan Willis

Spicebird is a cross-platform email and collaboration client derived from Mozilla Thunderbird. If you are a fan of Thunderbird, but need more from it than the standard build provides, you may want to give this new bird a try.

The latest version, Beta 0.4, was released in January. You can download it as a tarball for Intel-based Linux or as a binary installer for Windows. To run the Linux version, all you need to do is extract the tarball and run the included ./spicebird script from the command line.

Tour de Spice

At first launch, Spicebird takes you through the account setup wizard familiar to Thunderbird users. Though it is Thunderbird-based, Spicebird stores your profile in its own directory (~/.spicebird), so you don't need to worry about overwriting or corrupting your existing Thunderbird setup.

After you complete the setup wizard, you will start to see the differences between the two apps. Spicebird integrates three key additions to Thunderbird's basic mail/news core: calendaring, instant messaging, and RSS feed reading. In addition, the interface is reworked into tabs -- one each for mail, contacts, calendar, and task management, and one for a "home" screen featuring a summary view of calendar and task events, new mail, and recent RSS feed updates.

The calendaring functionality is based on the established Mozilla calendar found in Sunbird and the Lightning extension. It supports multiple local calendars and remote calendars using either CalDAV or iCalendar. You can create repeating events and send attendee invitations just as in the other Mozilla calendars.

Separating the task list support into its own tab is a significant variation, though. The current generation of Mozilla tasks supports categorization, GTD-friendly status updates, and basic prioritization and progress-tracking (low, medium, and high priorities, and progress in 25-percent-done increments). Tasks are still intrinsically part of the calendaring system, however: all tasks must be tied to a specific calendar.

Spicebird supports Jabber (XMPP)-only instant messaging integrated into the contacts tab; you set your own presence status in the toolbar, and initiate IM chats with your contacts by clicking on their address book entries. Spicebird can connect to your account with an existing XMPP service (such as Google Talk), and will import your buddy list into the contacts tab as a separate address book. By default, your IM presence is visible only in the contacts tab, but you can add the button to the other tabs' toolbars through View -> Toolbars -> Customize Toolbar.

The home tab is akin to a customizable widget-oriented start page from a Web portal; there are separate, rearrangeable blocks for different types of content, such as calendar items and email. Blocks can summarize specific email folders (not just the Inbox) and specific calendar views (including different calendars and date ranges). A custom "Date & Time" applet shows clocks for multiple locales.

The home tab also allows RSS feed blocks; you add each one manually (no OPML import), and can specify the number of news items to display and the refresh rate on a per-feed basis.

Spice World

Spicebird is the product of the Hyderabad, India-based company Synovel. The company is developing the app as an entirely open source product, with plans sell a commercial client-server collaboration product that uses Spicebird as the client-side component. It maintains a public Bugzilla server and makes the code accessible through a public Subversion repository.

Synovel's cofounder Prasad Sunkari indicates that the company contributes to the upstream Thunderbird codebase as well -- though most of Spicebird's changes involve simplifying the front end, which usually does not result in an upstream patch. He says, "There is little difference in the back end, and any changes we want or bugs we fix will be sent upstream."

The main difference between Thunderbird and Spicebird, Sunkari says, is that Spicebird aims to be simpler. By eliminating many of Thunderbird's advanced mail-centric features, Spicebird can add new functionality like IM without overloading the interface. "Spicebird is a more generic platform; the interface is designed to accommodate more applications."

In the future, he says, that may include support for other means of communication. "While we are planning a few more applications based on XMPP, we are also exploring the possibility of using Telepathy (a combined IM, video, and VoIP connection manager) or libpurple (the library behind multiprotocol IM client Pidgin)."

Extension agent

The one killer feature still missing in Spicebird Beta 0.4 is support for standard Thunderbird extensions. The Addons manager links to a yet-to-be-launched Spicebird extension site. Sunkari expects the addons site to go live before the project hits it next major release milestone, 0.7.

You can download Thunderbird extensions from Mozilla and try to install them, but you do so at your own risk. If you are comfortable modifying the XPIs, Sunkari says, you can make most recent Thunderbird extensions usable with a few "small tweaks" -- such the application ID. "I ported the GmailUI extension to Spicebird and all it took was changing three IDs in the code."

Of course, if you like Thunderbird and addons, you might ask whether Spicebird offers anything that Thunderbird can't do with the appropriate extensions. After all, the Lightning extension adds calendaring, the SamePlace extension adds XMPP, and there are several alternatives for RSS.

You could do all of those things through extensions, but in my estimation Spicebird offers such a well-integrated alternative that all of the extra work -- and the risk of breakage through extension conflicts -- is unnecessary.

The maintainership of Thunderbird is now in the hands of the recently formed Mozilla Messaging organization, which has expressed an openness to incorporating more than just email into future trunk releases. In the meantime, if you want an integrated email, calendaring, IM, and RSS client, give Spicebird a serious look.


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