Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reflecting on the Future via Thunderbird...

I've been using Thunderbird/Mozilla Mail/Netscape Communicator for quite some time now, with mbox files that date back to 1997. A few months back, however, I had some issues with Thunderbird handling my 7GB+ of archived email. This happened a couple years ago, too, when I added a near decade's worth of email to "Local Folders." Thunderbird took 10-15 minutes to load, every time I started it up.

Recently, I started seeing a similar but worse problem: it never finished loading at all. Not having the time to investigate, I gave up and started using GMail exclusively. I'm a big fan of GMail for both personal and business communications, so I had no problem with this. My only annoyance is that GMail seems to really slow down FireFox after an extended period of time (after being open for a week, for instance).

However, just the other day, I had desperate need of my archived mail. As such, I set about to find a way around the ThunderBird problem once and for all. What ended up working was adding one *.sbd folder at a time, checking it, quitting TB, restarting it, and adding the next one.

After all the old data was added and TB was running smoothly, I noticed that many of my mail folders were several GB is size, despite the fact that they contained only a few KB worth of messages. Peeking inside the files, I saw some really old emails that ThunderBird wasn't displaying. On a hunch, I went to the "File" menu and noticed the "compact" item. Bingo, that did the trick.

So far, everything is running great and I'm glad to be using TB again.

But here's the point: I'm really glad to be using TB again. I can't tell you the bizarre amount of contentment and near-euphoria I felt after seeing all that mail in its "rightful place", where I can search and find what I need, where I can reminisce, get old business information, content from which I can draw new inspiration, etc. I felt some weird form of "cleanliness" about having my mail in its own app and out of the browser.

I mean, hell yeah, Google's got a good thing going -- no denying that. But with the decreasing cost of storage, historical correspondence is something I want at my fingertips so that even if I have no internet connection, I can still get to it; even if I have no ThunderBird, I can still fire up vi and dig around.

And this made me think: we're all looking at web apps, MMOs, Amazon's EC2/SimpleDB, etc., but what about users like me? How many are there of us? What kind of market do we form? What *other* tools might we like to have besides email clients? I want to manage my data on my hard drives under my conditions. I like little scripts and even GUI apps that do one or two things really well. I'd love to have little GUI apps like that could be combined with other apps, forming exactly what I need when I need it with little or no pain.

Glyph was recently showing me the latest version of the Glade UI builder, and I was really impressed. It reminded me of working with Apple's XCode a few years ago -- a wonderful experience. And now... I wonder. What it would take to build a "meta IDE"? Where instead of assembling pieces of code and GUI widgets, we're assembling little GUI apps that all communicate via a shared, open protocol. Apps that could be easily reskinned to look like one complete application...

As a developer, the first thing that comes to mind is a tool that would be a combination of an IM/IRC client, a bug tracker, a wiki editor, an IDE, an email client, an svn client, and a time tracking tool. Each would be able to communicate with any other, allowing data to be correlated, tagged, cross-referenced, etc. Building that monstrosity from scratch would be heinous. But building each part wouldn't be too bad, really. What about having the flexibility to use any one of those as a stand-alone app, or combined with as few or as many of the others as you desired? That'd be killer. And wouldn't it be great not to have to use a web browser?

There has *got* to be some demand for this sort of thing...

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  1. one option that i've considered doing is to use thunderbird for backing up my gmail, but still use gmail as the primary app.

  2. jmc,

    Yeah, that's what I did for about 6 months prior to TB taking its most recent dump. It worked for a while and I was cool with that. I guess I've just gotten fed up with using the browser so much :-) Doing email in TB again felt so liberating!

  3. I did e-mail in Thunderbird and/or Evolution until Gmail added IMAP support.

    Then I dragged and dropped all of my local archives to my Gmail IMAP account in Thunderbird, and have never opened Thunderbird again.

    I feel bad because I really like Thunderbird, and for some reason Gmail (and all google apps) seem to creep on my computer (Javascript performance in general seems terrible).

    But I just can't beat the convenience of web mail, and Google has made it almost as smooth a user experience as Thunderbird or Evolution.

  4. The "meta-IDE" you describe reminds me a lot of OpenDoc...

  5. Mike, that's interesting -- thanks for the link. From there, I also got to KParts and Bonobo for KDE and Gnome, respectively.

  6. Have you looked at Chandler? It still segfaults way to quickly, but I still think it has potential - mainly as the project has the potential to become the information hub you are looking for.

  7. Hrm. It's been a long time since I've looked at Chandler. It's come a long way. Interesting docs...

  8. There's something worth remembering about OpenDoc, Bonobo, OLE, etc, etc: they were all terrible, failed and noone uses them any more. Maybe they just weren't good enough, but maybe it's something else...

    (I don't know much about KParts)