What is compacting folders in Thunderbird, and why you should do it

Are your Thunderbird folders taking up a lot of disk space, even though you only have a few messages? Is Thunderbird slow to open folders? It’s probably because you have not compacted your folders.

When you delete a message, it doesn’t really get deleted from the folder. It gets marked as deleted. Thunderbird sees that marking, and knows not to display the message. Compacting a folder will command Thunderbird to remove all messages marked as deleted from that folder.

To compact your folders, go to the File menu and select Compact Folders.
To compact an individual folder, right-click on the folder and select Compact.

If you’re having any issues, post in the Thunderbird Support forum at https://support.mozillamessaging.com/en-US/kb/ask

XPAT on news.mozilla.org

[modified version for Thunderbird 2 users. Thunderbird 1 users go here.]

Every once in a while, someone on news.mozilla.org will enquire about receiving an error message “A News (NNTP) error occurred: xpat not supported“, when trying to search newsgroups on news.mozilla.org; so I thought I’d post my ‘stock’ answer. 🙂

News.mozilla.org is hosted by Giganews, who’s servers do not support XPAT commands.
To quote one of the Giganews support personnel:

“The XPAT command attempts to search through our entire spool of over 700 million articles, to match on a specific keyword, that is often found only in a handful of newsgroups. The command puts enough of a load on our servers, that several people using this at one time can affect the performance that all of our customers receive.”

Disabling XPAT support is not an uncommon thing. When using the “Search Messages” function in Mozilla Thunderbird [Edit–>Find–>Search Messages], the XPAT command is used to search that news server. The workaround for this is to make Thunderbird search messages locally. There are a couple of ways to do that:

1. Use the Quick Search toolbar item [View–>Toolbars–>Customize, and make sure “Quick Search” is on a toolbar].

2. Before opening the search window, you can switch to offline mode [File–>Offline–>Work Offline]. There’s also an offline toggle icon in the bottom left of the Thunderbird window.

Additionally, all mozilla.* newsgroups are archived on Google Groups, which is searchable using Google Groups.

Improving Support

Three months ago, I met with Paul Kim, to discuss ways of improving Mozilla user support web content. I initially thought we wouldn’t need all 45 minutes, but it turned out that 45 minutes wasn’t nearly enough. He asked if there was a page anywhere in which I outlined my thoughts on improving support. I did post a response to Chris Hofmann’s enquiry a couple of months before; but even that didn’t contain all of my thoughts on the matter; and there have been developments and new ideas since then. I had been meaning to post this sooner. Sorry Paul. 🙁 With the support meetings happening this week, that kicked me in the butt, to get this post done.

Rather than go through every problem/bug I see in Mozilla’s user support, let’s go through solutions, which may fix multiple problems at once:


  • Add “More Info” links to tooltips and pop-up messages:This is less about troubleshooting, and more about general “How to” enquires. Whereas some features may be relatively discoverable, finding documentation on it, can prevent users from creating there own problems. I’m not sure if it is technically possible, but putting “More info” links in tooltips may help users get to know how the program works.
  • Beef up the Help menu: Let’s say Joe User has a problem. If he is willing to look for support, the first place he is going to go is the Help menu. The Help menu should have quick links to the primary support venues. A while back, I took a screenshot of Google’s Picasa2 Help menu:

    Not only is there an item for the in-product help content, but there are links to tutorials on some of the basic functions, a link to the online support site, and a link to the user forums. We’ve got an online help site, and it has a User Forums page.
  • Beef up XUL pages/errors: What ever happened to bug 335289?! Each time there is a new Firefox update, we get a batch of questions about Firefox not being able to connect to the internet anymore (caused by a Firewall not recognizing that the app was updated). It’s a major problem with every release.
  • about:support(diagnostics): I filed bug 367596 to get this created. In looking at the Dell support site, I loved how I could enter my computer’s serial number, and the Dell site would show me info, that applies to my setup. Likewise, by giving a Dell support person my computer’s serial number, that person would have my computer’s specs in front of them; and this helps greatly in being able to diagnose my problem, and telling my how to fix my problem. While every Firefox download is available “as is,” there’s still a lot of info that helps support volunteers help users. For example, what version of Firefox the user has, what operating system, what add-ons are installed, the version number of each add-on, what plug-ins are installed, what locale is being used, where the profile is located, etc. It would be nice if support volunteers could direct users to a single about: page, that listed all the info a user needs for user support; and create a “Copy my support info” button on that page.


  • Move it to mozilla.com/%PRODUCT%/support/: If a person is looking for Firefox support on the web, they are going to go to the Firefox website. If a person is looking for Thunderbird support on the web, they are going to go to the Thunderbird website. If a person is looking for SeaMonkey support on the web, they are going to go to the SeaMonkey website. If a person is looking for Camino support…well, you get the idea. The support indexes at www.mozilla.com/support/ and www.mozilla.org/support/ are redundant, and give the user a lot of info that may not apply to that user. In almost all cases, a user is looking for info about one product. The biggest offender of this is actually the MozillaZine Knowledge Base. For example, if a Firefox user is directed to the profile folder page, they are bombarded with profile locations for Thunderbird, Sunbird, SeaMonkey, and told about files that don’t exist in Firefox profiles. A SeaMonkey user may be taken to a page written for Firefox users. It simply has a note at the top saying “this page also applies to blah, blah, and blah.” Meanwhile that page may contain UI directions, that are different in SeaMonkey. Having one page for all products might be beneficial for maintainers; but it’s a lot of unnecessary confusion for the user. Support web content should be split by product from the get-go. Maybe even split by version.
  • Search: I’ve mostly taken care of this on Firefox and Thunderbird Help sites, but I just want to explain the philosophy. I found this comment on Eric Shepherd’s blog very interesting: “I tried to call their customer service (ha!) but on top of their horrible support they’ve added an obnoxious automated system that insists on making you jump through the hoops you used to be able to demand they not make you jump through (admittedly with varying degrees of success).” Too much automation can be a bad thing; and while we discuss methods improving self-help, diagnosis and solutions need to be quick. There cannot be so many steps, that the process becomes a hassle. When I have a problem with any product, the first thing I look for is a search engine. I go to the Help menu, open the help viewer, and do a search there. If I don’t find what I need, I go to the product site, and look for a search field for the online help documentation. If I don’t find what I need, I look for a support forum, and try find a search field for that. These functions already exists for Firefox, but need to be obvious/convenient. The term I like to use for it is “unmissable.”
  • Use multimedia: I’m sure you all know the saying “A picture speaks a thousand words.” It is very true for user support. Many users tend to give incorrect terminology, or not understand the terminology we use. It’s amazing how much confusion can be avoided, by using screenshots. Screen videos are even better. Are you familiar with the CustomizeGoogle extension? Are you familiar with what it does, or how to use it? Go to customizegoogle.com, and view the introduction video. I doubt you’ll find many people who won’t know what the extension is, or how to use it, after viewing that video. Apple is doing the same thing, to give folks a preview of Leopard.
  • Designate responsibility: The Mozilla Organization is great, how it organizes and coordinates Mozilla development. There are project leaders, module owners, etc.. That hasn’t really happened with Mozilla User Support. One thing I’ve found about Mozilla support is that there are a lot of “Jacks of all trades”. Perhaps its just me who’s guilty of this. In addition to running the firefox support list, I also run the thunderbird, mozilla-suite, other, accessibility, and calendar support lists, as well as the test, and test-multimedia list. I answer questions in all of those lists, except for calendar and accessibility. I contribute to the www.mozilla.org support site, as well as maintain my own website, which not only requires knowledge of support issues, but knowledge of web coding (HTML,CSS,etc.), and the need to proof-read and organize everything, and keep it all updated with every new release. I often find myself spread too thin; and perhaps there are others in the community doing much of the same. There needs to be more designation of responsibility. Thunderbird helpers should leave Firefox support to someone else, and vice versa. Designate people for adding content to documentation. Designate others, who know a thing or two about the English language, for proof-reading, and others, with web-coding knowledge, for presentation. Instead, we’ve got people who answer questions in support forums, providing web-content, and doing all of the above. It may not seem like a lot of work at first, but the more web-content there is, the more maintenance needs to be done, when the product is updated.


  • Private support: It’s inevitable. Mozilla is going to have to start offering private support sooner or later. The only current private option is a whopping $40 USD. You know that feeling you get after you’ve bought a printer for a great price, then see the price of an ink cartridge for that printer? The private option is usually that taken by those who don’t want to “test the wild” of public support, or aren’t familiar with certain technologies. How many Firefox users are familiar with IRC, newsgroups, or even web-forums? I think it’s safe to assume that most, if not all Firefox users have a phone, or iphone unlock ….an email address. The support mailing lists used to get a lot of non-members posting, thinking that address was for private support. I don’t know what the cost of offering private email support is; but I really like that, as a new support venue.
  • Certifying experts: Don’t you hate it, when someone who claims to be an expert, starts giving the most BS answers you’ve ever read? Or even worse, a community troll starts deliberately giving users bad advice. One incident that sticks in my head, is in the days of Netscape 6/7. A user was having trouble installing Netscape, and one person suggested they take the Netscape CD, and put it in the microwave for a couple of seconds. The user followed that advice. Users need some sort of assurance, that the help they are being given is from an expert. This is separate from moderators, because being good at helping users does not equal being a good forum moderator, and vice versa. And those who are certified, can take that title to any third party Mozilla support forum.
  • Make a better product: Okay, this isn’t really a support issue. 🙂 I just sometimes feel guilty, telling people about a product upgrade. You still need a computer guru to install add-ons in Thunderbird, there’s still no UI for backing up your Thunderbird profile, you still lose bookmarks, and they still eat memory like a pig…but now you’ve got live titles and a new theme. There’s only so much good user support can do.

Small attachment icons in Thunderbird 2

After we worked out how to limit the height of the attachments pane in Thunderbird, Windows users now have to deal with big attachment icons.

What’s up with that? 🙂

Here’s how to make those icons small:
Go to Tools–>Options–>Advanced–>General, and click on “Config Editor“. In the Config Editor, search for the preference mailnews.attachments.display.largeView. Double-click on it, which should change the value to false.

Please help with Thunderbird options documentation

I wanted to have an options reference page ready for the Thunderbird Help site, when Thunderbird 2 is released; but it looks like I won’t be able to get it done on time.

I’ve updated the wiki page, with screenshots in a table, and my work so far. If anyone is willing to contribute to that document, please do. Once we’ve got definitions for all the option settings, I’ll reformat it for the the Thunderbird Help site.


Keeping threaded view in Thunderbird

Users of Mozilla Thunderbird, may have noticed that if you are viewing messages in threaded view, clicking on a column name (other than the thread column) will turn off threaded view.

What if you want to keep threaded view on? Go to Tools–>Options–>Advanced–>General, and click on “Config Editor“.
In the Config Editor, search for the preference mailnews.thread_pane_column_unthreads. Double-click on it, which should change the value to false.
That’s it. 🙂

Improving add-on installation for non-browser products

This is something I’d like to help draw some attention to. If you are using a Mozilla product, that is not a web browser, figuring out how to install an add-on turns into a very user-unfriendly experience. Too many times, I’ve seen questions from Thunderbird users, wondering why the extensions they want to install are not showing up in the Thunderbird Add-ons manager; or they get a message saying the add-on is not compatible with Firefox.

It’s especially confusing, when the web page for each Thunderbird add-on on AMO has a big green “Install Now” link.

Scott MacGregor has created a wiki page for improving add-on installation in Thunderbird, and posted in the mozilla.dev.apps.thunderbird newsgroup. If you’ve got any ideas for a solution to the problem, please let Scott and the AMO team know about it.Meanwhile get your http://www.thecorsetcenter.com/shape-your-body-with-steel-boned-corsets/ discount by using the free promo coupon.

Duration of the ‘New Mail’ alert in Thunderbird

In Thunderbird, when you receive new mail, an alert will pop up in the lower right corner of the screen (at least on Windows). Some people think it stays up for too long. Others feel that it goes away too fast. There is actually a setting for the duration of the new mail alert, that users can set.

In Thunderbird, go to Tools–>Options, open the Advanced section, select the General tab, then click on “Config Editor.” In the Config Editor, search for the preference alerts.totalOpenTime. Double-click on it, to change the value. Set the value to the amount of milliseconds you want the alert to stay up.

Easy Gmail and .Mac setup on latest Thunderbird 2 builds

This has the makings of a great new feature for Thunderbird, and I’d like to help get the word out for testers test it. As Scott writes,

One of the goals in Thunderbird 2 is to make account setup easier for folks using large ISPs (like google, yahoo!, etc) for e-mail. In fact ISPs can now create extensions for Thunderbird that drop in their configuration files.

With the current nightly branch builds, when creating a new mail account, the account wizard now lists Gmail and .Mac (Mac OS X only) as default account types you can create. Choose one of these account types, and the next screen in the wizard asks for your username for that service.

That’s the only piece of information you need to enter, Thunderbird figures the rest out!

Here’s a cropped screenshot:

The Gmail inclusion is great, but it’s the ISP extensions that I think will be the most beneficial. Imagine being a novice user, trying out Thunderbird, and instead of having to read through instructions from your ISP, just install the corresponding extension.

Of course, we need installing Thunderbird add-ons to be easier. Way too many people install Thunderbird add-ons in Firefox, and wonder why it’s not showing up in Thunderbird.

To test this feature use the latest Thunderbird2 builds.

Oh, by the way, Happy New Year. 🙂