Comparing Mozilla Thunderbird, Firefox to IE, peers

How do Mozilla's new Thunderbird e-mail and Firefox browser programs stand up to Internet Explorer, Opera and other competitors? Expert Nigel McFarlane weighs in.

Mozilla has spurred thousands of tests in IT shops with its recent release of Thunderbird 0.8, Mozilla's latest e-mail program, and the preview version of the Firefox Web browser. IT pros have peppered SearchEnterpriseLinux.com with questions about the two new Mozilla offerings. In turn, we asked our resident expert Nigel McFarlane to answer the ones that popped up most often. McFarlane is a programmer and author of several books on...

IT, including Rapid Application Development with Mozilla from Prentice Hall PTR.

Can you offer some comparisons of such open source e-mail alternatives as sendmail, gmail, fusemail and Thunderbird?

McFarlane: For an enterprise messaging system, you need three pieces of software: an MTA (Mail Transfer Agent), a UA (User Agent) and a database. MTA = mail gateway; UA = client; and, database = where the mail is stored.

Exchange, sendmail, postfix, etc are MTA servers. Exchange is also an email database. Gmail, Thunderbird, Outlook, pine and elm are MTA clients.

Because gmail is a Web-based application served remotely into your browser, you don't need an MTA or database with it, just an Internet connection and a Web browser.

Now, the big question for IT managers is: How will you administer the e-mail data, the corporate information that needs to be reliably backed up?

For all MTAs, except gmail, you can put your user's email on a server box, usually using IMAP or LDAP (requiring another piece of software). Then you backup the server box. For a more "hands free" admin style, just use any mail client, they all let you store mail on a desktop PC.

If you use Linux as the server box, then you get IMAP, LDAP, sendmail, server and everything for free.

If you buy an expensive solution like Oracle or Microsoft (or Sun ONE), then you get this extra feature: workflow integration support between all tools. The main benefit is automatic calendar coordination between staff. If you don't need that feature -- perhaps because you actually speak to each other -- then that expense is unnecessary. If you do need it, Evolution is a free e-mail client with some support, and the Mozilla Sunbird Calendar Project is heading in that direction too. It's a bit behind Thunderbird, though.

What are the differences in costs and features between Firefox, Safari, Mozilla, Opera, Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer?

McFarlane:There are no cost differences, except that you can pay to get rid of advertising that appears in Opera. They're otherwise all free of purchase cost.

To comprehend this, consider that lots of things are free in this life that other people have labored on: jazz in the park, birthday parties and walking tracks through the forest. They might cost money to make, but no-one's going to send you a bill. Just enjoy such things, don't waste the opportunity.

On features, that's a very long story, but some basic points are:

  • Product maturity: Opera, Netscape and Mozilla are more mature.
  • Internal quality: Opera, Netscape and Mozilla are better inside.
  • Vendor lock-in: IE is the only browser seeking to be non-standard.
  • Security: IE has a track record ten times worse than the rest.
  • Featurism: Opera and Mozilla have many small enhancements.

Some IT pros tell us that they have tested Firefox as a possible browser replacement and found that it was slow and did it eat up resources! One said that Firefox took up more memory than IE. Are they missing something, or are they right?

McFarlane: Which version did they try? It's a mistake to try a nightly build or a debug version - they're for developers. Stick to the major releases, which are radically more efficient. They're also the ones properly advertised. It's not meaningful to try an experimental nightly build unless you're enthusiastic about contributing to Firefox.

I doubt Firefox will ever take up as much memory as IE. You forget that most of IE doesn't appear in the list of system processes. Lots of it is embedded in Windows, where it's hard to count. The tiny iexplore.exe "program" that starts IE is just a tugboat that's pulling a huge battleship.

Firefox does have a memory cache, though and it can be big.

That's for dial-up users who want to squeeze out every drop of performance. If you're on a corporate intranet you can turn that off. Type in this URL: "about:config" and search for "memory". Right click on a likely item, change it, and restart.


This was first published in October 2004
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