tabbed message browsing in Thunderbird: updated patch and test builds

I updated my patch for tabbed message browsing in Thunderbird to work on the trunk, and I built trunk test builds for Windows, Mac, and Linux. For folks who want to try out the feature but don’t want to ride the cutting edge, I also built 1.5 branch builds for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

If you haven’t tried message tabs before, using them is simple. Just right-click a message header and select “Open Message in New Tab” from the context menu. You can also make the Enter key open messages in tabs by setting the Preferences -> Advanced -> Open new messages in preference to A new message tab.

Tabs work much like they do in Firefox: you can close them with Ctrl/Cmd-w, reorder them with drag-and-drop, etc. Next time you want to save some messages to read a little later, or you want to work with several messages at once, but they aren’t all consecutive in the same folder, try opening the messages in tabs. I reckon you’ll find them easier to use than windows.


Myk Melez

Myk is a Principal Software Architect and in-house entrepreneur at Mozilla. A Mozillian since 1999, he's contributed to the Web App Developer Initiative, PluotSorbet, Open Web Apps, Firefox OS Simulator, Jetpack, Raindrop, Snowl, Personas, Firefox, Thunderbird, and Bugzilla. He's just a cook. He's all out of bubblegum.


59 thoughts on “tabbed message browsing in Thunderbird: updated patch and test builds

  1. That’s a cool idea. You have the links for the windows builds backwards though (trunk points to 1.5, branch points to 1.6a1)

  2. It would be great to be able to open one tab per thread. We could more easily switch between them.

  3. Would it be possible to make this into an extension instead of having to try a new build?

    Having said that, I’ll try it out as it sounds awesome. I’d just rather see this as an extension than having to get a new build to test it.

  4. jed,

    I would have liked to have made this an extension, but I had to modify existing Thunderbird code in too many places, including some of its C++ code, for it to be easily an extension.

  5. This is one of a few key features that need to be implemented in Thunderbird before I’ll move from Eudora.

    The others are improving the awful account management and mailbox setup.

    As for whether it’s an extension or not, who cares? I suggest you fork Thunderbird as the current team seems to lack genuine innovation compared to Firefox.

    My download just finished, I’m off to give it a try 🙂

  6. Well my dream of a Eudora replacement has been re-kinlded but stillborn.

    Great work myk but the following still needs addressing, IMHO:

    – Everything should open in a tab (mailboxes, new messages, everything)

    – Would be nice to be able to put the tab bar at the bottom of the screen.

    – You build lacks an installer. Understandable but messy. I now have to manually go and delete all the mail imported from Eudora into my App Data.

    – Why is tabmail turned off by default when you gone to so much trouble? Also, the Advanced Options dialogue tab ‘Configure …’ button disappears to the right.

    Beyond that Thunderbird still really shits me.

    Why did Ben Goodger re-write the Fx/Tb Options dialogue when the most obvious piece of Netscape Mail circa version 4 that needs fixing is the Account Setup dialogue?

    Oh well. Perhaps some day my dream will come true.

  7. “- Everything should open in a tab (mailboxes, new messages, everything)”

    I’m not sure what else there is to open in tabs besides messages and mailboxes, but I couldn’t agree more about those two. I’d like to be able to open my most commonly accessed mailboxes and switch between them without the annoying delay currently imposed by Thunderbird when switching between folders.

    What I’m not sure about is whether they should open in the same tab group. Should mailbox tabs intermingle with message tabs, or should they live separately?

    “- Would be nice to be able to put the tab bar at the bottom of the screen.”

    This seems like something that could be a pref, perhaps a hidden one so as not to clutter the prefs UI.

    “- You build lacks an installer. Understandable but messy. I now have to manually go and delete all the mail imported from Eudora into my App Data.”

    Unfortunately I don’t know much about the Mozilla build process besides the minimal knowledge required to make a build on all three platforms, but I’ll see what I can do with future test builds.

    “- Why is tabmail turned off by default when you gone to so much trouble?”

    I didn’t want to change the behavior for existing users, but “open messages in new tabs” is (or should be, unless there’s a bug in my patch) the default behavior for new profiles.

    “Also, the Advanced Options dialogue tab ‘Configure …’ button disappears to the right.”

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too. I’ll see what I can do.

  8. I created 2 klik recipes for your testing and evaluation pleasure:

    * klik://thunderbird15-tabbed
    * klik://thunderbird16-tabbed

    If you don’t know about klik yet, here is the 20 second installation of the client (should work on all $Debian distros, as well as SUSE-9.3/10.0):

    wget -O -|sh

    and follow instructions on the screen.

    If this sounds suspicious to you (after all you’re piping the install script into a local shell for direct execution), read the klik intro article or visit the klik FAQ page

    klik is the fastest and most easy way to testdrive new packages, across different supported distros.

    These new klik recipes take as input the binary packages offered by the parent post. I created them 1 hour ago, and tested on SUSE-9.3 as well as SUSE-10.0. (Don’t worry if you see some .deb Debian packages listed in the download dialog: they are needed, they will end up completely embedded into the klik package, will not install into your system, and therefor will not harm your non-Debian OS).

    After installing the klik client (installation needs root once, to add 7 mount points to /etc/fstab), it is just a matter of typing


    and you get the new program started within a minute.

    Don’t worry — it will not mess up your system libraries. klik bundles embed everything into one compressed file (in reality a complete file system image) with the extension .cmg.

    If you are finished, just delete the one .cmg file and you are done.

    Of course, since this is experimental Thunderbird code, you’ll want to backup your Mail folder first.

    Kurt Pfeifle

  9. Lack of tabs in thunderbird are the only reason why I didn’t switch from Eudora yet!

  10. I know you said it’s a lot of work but you should think of making this an extension for TB 1.5 Final or at least implement it into the official feature list of TB 1.5.

  11. Pardon me, but is this suppose to work ? Trying 1.6a1

    When I open a message in TAB, nothing happen

  12. I’ve been dying for this feature ever since I had to quit Eudora because it was such an old program… it’s a great thing, keep up the good work!

  13. — I’m not sure what else there is to open in tabs besides messages and mailboxes…

    The calendar for one thing. Running it a tab would let alarms go off without having to run it in a separate app.

  14. This is incredibly nice. The only thing I’d like to see is the ability to select several messages in a folder (with ctrl-click) and then be able to right-click -> open in tabs. As it is, if you have more than one message selected the open in tabs disappears.

  15. Great feature, Wonder why it was’nt there in the original thunderbird in the first place.Good work buddy.

  16. just wondering about installing, if I am already using Thunderbird will it overwrite my mail or will it be ok. I dont see any install instructions on the site.

    Looking forward to trying it out.

  17. Since I think most people in FF are used to middle-click to open a tab, that’s probably a good feature to add. I know it would be more productive then right-click and find the ‘open in tab’ menu item.

    great feature idea by the way.

    another suggestion, a tab bar along the top where each tab can have a subset of your folders/accounts in them (basically, a filtered list of the left-panel stuff)

  18. Can you please put some installation instructions here as I haven’t got the faintest idea what to do with all these files and folders I just downloaded. Installation instructions are a minimum requirement for anything like this surely, or can only expert users have this program?

  19. Hi, very cool feature!!

    Just a thing: imho it wold be a lot better if you could have a “message list” tab where you have the current standard view (messages on top and post preview on bottom) and then when you open a new tab it goes over all this, not just inside the message preview as I saw on the screenshots.


  20. Thanks everyone for your comments and feedback. Note that this is really an early development patch and should not be considered anywhere near final. Not only the code but also the design is likely to undergo significant revision before it makes its way into Thunderbird.

    I know you’re all hungry for the goodness that is tabbed message reading, but please be patient while we work out the issues involved in this significant revision to the Thunderbird UI.

    re: questions about whether this will hork your existing mail and how to install it, chances are it won’t hork your mail (so far I haven’t heard from anyone that it has), but it is early development code, and it’s not packaged for easy installation, so please treat this like you would a nightly build and avoid trying it out without safeguards against data loss and experience using non-installer builds.

  21. An excellent and innovative feature. For viewing posts that are intended to be viewed “Full screen” that is photos or HTML graphics messages, it would be great if there was a way to “view tab maximized” This would be helpful even for very long text messages. A real stretch of wishful thinking would be the ability to view tabs as thumbnails and maximize the tabs as desired.
    Thanks for your work on this feature, much appreciated here.

  22. Really smart concept. I was looking for this for quite some time, and when I saw the article on Digg, I nearly jumped up out of the chair.

  23. Is there ”out there” an holy soul who can explain how to push the build over a Windows TB 1.5 installation ?

    This poor guy needs desperately to e-mail-manage a client ”tabbed” ..
    but it’s an illeterate of Operating Systems and applications = plain user.


  24. Don’t know if this is a bug or not. If you have two tabs open – right click the newest tab but don’t select anything.

    Now select any mail – the background tab will refresh instead of the foreground one.

  25. I haven’t tried the Tb w/tabs option yet, but as soon as I read about it, it sounded great.

    One thing though, any chance you can modify the CSS/style of this page, so that it isn’t a fixed with of like 600px?

    When there are lots of posts, only a 300px wide column stretches down the page to infinity… which, when I run at a screen res of 1600×1200, looks very, very tiny. Cheers.

  26. To start with, this is absolutely stellar and really helps desktop realestate junkies such as myself! I’d love to see tabbed folders, and the other thing I’d like to see is replying in tabs. The ideal goal for me is to open my email client and never have to have a second window open for it.

  27. wow! that’s THE innovation!! congratulation. this makes a mail reader’s life so much easier!!!

  28. now an option to “always open messages” in tab and this is perfect!

  29. Nice work Myk! Excellent idea and nice implementation. Keep it up! Oh, and welcome to the hell of being Slashdotted! I mean that in a good way!

  30. I Can’t get this to work on my Mac,
    using the Mac Branch 1.5 tabbed rel.
    Enabled tabs in prefs, restart, still
    no luck…Am I doing something wrong?

  31. For some reason, when I started using this, Tbird stopped advancing to the next message automatically when I deleted a message.

    It’s annoying the hell out of me. Anybody know how to change it?

  32. I prefer tabs that open near the top of the window, a la Mulberry 3.0+. It’s especially useful to have various folders open in new tabs (as recommended by another user here).

  33. Great stuff,

    how does using this “test build” affect the ability to use the in-built update system? Can I just upgrade the tab build like I would do with an official Thunderbird build? Or is there a chance updating might bork the client?

    Keep up the good work, Mykzilla, awesome idea.

  34. Myk,

    at 10:05 AM you said:
    >> What I’m not sure about is whether they should open in the same tab group. Should mailbox tabs intermingle with message tabs, or should they live separately? >>

    How about having the mailbox-folder-address book tabs within the “message list” panel, while we keep the individual messages in tabs within the “message display” panel (as current)?

    This is kinda shown by the mozillazine commentator with a “groupwise” Mozilla snapshot, ref

    (Although he’s clearly not showing all the “folders” associated with his ID; and Groupwise has only one ID per person, not multiple mail Account Identities; and there is no message display panel within the window he shows us, the selected message(s) must be displayed in a separate Window) he is showing a tab for “sent”, and another tab for his address book. The “mailbox” (== “inbox”, not a whole TB mail account) is the highlighted tab, and it’s contents are shown in the panel.

    BTW, I have no idea whether each selected Email message shows in i’ts own Window, or whether they show as tabs within a single Window, as you’re doing here (and I like !!!!!)

    So it’s not the same. But it’s close to what I’m suggesting for your question: Since the message list panel deals with all the messages within a single folder, tab the “folders” at the top of that panel, tab the messages as you do now.

    By putting the different types of tabs at the tops of the correpsonding panels, rather than jumbling them together on a single tab-bar, you make it much easier to understand what is being tabbed.


  35. Now, I have an enhancement idea:

    After I read a message, it’s very likely that the next thing I’ll want to do is delete it, not merely close its tab. Currently, I have to shove the mouse all the way back up into the “message list” panel and re-select it for deletion. How about adding another “tab close” button on the tabbed messages tab-bar, for the action ‘Close-Tab-and-Delete-Msg’?

    My reasoning is, I’d like to delete the message and the tab with just ONE click, and without moving back up to the “message list” panel.

    Putting this the tab context menu, (although it should be added there too) still requires 3 motions: right-click for the context menu, drag down the context menu, click again to perform the selected action. It saves a lot of mouse motion distance, but nothing else.

    If you’re concerned that the two buttons will be too close together or gobble too much real estate, then performing the Close-Tab-Delete-Msg action upon double click in the tab would also be a VERY GOOD choice: very fast, very easy, and not currently used for anything else.

    No need to ask for confirmation and waste a click: after all, if you delete a message by accident, you can retrieve it from trash.

    I think that this Delete-Msg behavior is much more important than the tabbing of folders and IDs, because most people delete messages much more often than they switch folders… even people like me (I’ve got 6 email accounts and a bunch of separate folder filters in each, I do switch folders a lot.) But speeding up the interface on the individual messages is by far the bigger payoff of the two.

    (Both would be nice. But #1, please let me delete my messages from inside the message display panel.)

    Thanks again! This is wonderful.

  36. Note that my enhance request (delete msg via icon or mouse double-click) is related to my comment #33 on the bug: it’s NASTY to keep switching from the mouse, to the keyboard, back to the mouse, back to the keyboard…. A way do delete a tab and it’s message, using just the mouse, is my request.

    Of course comment 25 also points at another switch-back-and-forth issue in the current imp: After the Delete Key key leaves the empty tab behind, the only way to remove the empty tab is to GO BACK TO THE MOUSE (use context menu or right-click on the tab-close icon).

    Last thing for tonight: If, over time, you will be spending more than 2 hours per build to create the 1.5 versions, you have my vote to forget about ’em. People who have an inclination to try this should darn well know how to back up their profiles first, and move around mbox and .msf files if/when things break.

    If they’re too chicken to live on the trunk, maybe they shouldn’t be here?

    BTW, I’m alternating between Seamonkey and TB nightlies (now yours) several times a month. No problem, unless you get your identities out of order.

  37. Great concept, tried it and I like the tabbed feature. I even tried it with a profile from version 1.5RC2, the profile was left perfectly intact and all extensions and themes functioned great.

    But there were some issues… first off, open in new window doesn’t work anymore… trying to open a folder in a new window just opened it in the same one. And I opened a compose window, then closed it without saving the message… and Thunderbird itself closed completely.

    So it still needs work; but when it’s done it’ll be a great addition.

  38. I agree that mailboxes (and calendars, in Lightning) should be next to be tabbed in Thunderbird. I suppose that when you switch mailbox tab, the message tabs could switch to be whatever messages are open in the new mailbox, or you could regard the two areas as separate and have the message tabs allow messages from all mailboxes to be viewed at once. Mixing both types of tabs in the same area, though, is just going to be confusing!

  39. Nice, but wouldn’t it be better to use the tab’s funktion for
    mail accounts (and future agenda’s)

    Cheers, Collen

  40. Great work! 🙂

    Tabbed mail is a feature that is listed for Thunderbird 2.0, but the sooner it’s here the better.

    I’ve seen some good suggestions regarding options/settings in the comments here. But I would like to stress the need of a mode/setting in which the tabs behave exactly as they do in Eudora, as most people who want tabs are used to this kind of behaviour.

    Eudora displays almost everything in tabs: folders, messages, addressbook, filters, etc.
    The tabs (foldertabs and messagetabs for ex.) are ‘unsorted’ but I really like it that way.
    And very important: all tabs are visible at all times. No matter which folder a messagetab is from.

    Anyway, good initiative and hope to see updates on this soon 🙂

  41. Ok, this may sound silly, but could someone honestly explain to me how these tabs in Thunderbird are so cool?

    I haven’t tried the builds myself, but from the sound of it – it replicates the tab feature in Firefox, letting you open messages in tabs. Why would you want todo that?

    When using Thunderbird, you allready see a list of the messages in the folder, which you can click to open on reading pane. How does it help to open tabs (eg. links) to the same messages? To me it sounds like the UI is getting more cluttered, without any real benefit.

    I welcome using tabs for other functions, but just to fill a toolbar with message-tabs doesn’t sound right to me.

  42. Hi Myk,

    Is the tab option available in the official RC2 or only in the builds you mention. I don’t have an “in new message tab” option, only “in new message window” or “an existing message window”. 🙁

  43. As a longtime Eudora person I was amazed to find Tbird didn’t support tabbed interface for messages and mailboxes. I mean why did most of us switch to Mozilla (Firefox) in the first place?

    So here is the question. Branch 1.5? Trunk 1.6? I am currently on version 1.0.7 is this an older stable version the version that is available here and trunk 1.5 is bleeding edge?

    I want to try this build out but not if I loose all my extensions like the time I installed a version with inline spell check. (HINT HINT!)

    Thanks for the great work!

  44. My thanks,

    This is going to be fun to play with.

    I also would appreciate being able to middle click to open a message in a new tab.

  45. Just wanted to compliment you on your contribution. What convinced me to download and use thunderbird was: tabbed browsing, in-line spellcheck and message auto-saving (in that order). Currently only your version provides the most attractive (for me) component. I sincerely hope tabbed browsing of messages is integrated into the next version of thunderbird.

    Thanks again!

  46. Is there any language pack that supports this build “tabbed message browsing in Thunderbird”???

  47. Is there any language pack that supports this build “tabbed message browsing in Thunderbird”???

  48. I am so glad so to see someone finally add tabs to Thunderbird. I’ve been waiting a long time for that. What I would really like to see added now are persistent tabs or I guess you would call something to remember to remember the session so that when I reopen Thunderbird it will remember the tabs that I had open. Any chance you will be able to add a feature like that any time soon? Thanks for creating such a great feature.

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