Thunderbird: Just because it’s open source doesn’t mean it’s not shit

So occasionally GMail hiccups and does not let me in / authenticate.

And what does Thunderbird do in that circumstance?

It decides the password is wrong, forgets the password it knows, drops me into a dialogue where I have to click “Cancel” to continue, locks up until I do that, then continues to insist that GMail is broken, requires me to quit Thunderbird to get out of the loop, and on restart requires me to enter the password that it used to know – but forgot because of the authentication burp.

Here’s the thing: versions of this problem have been around since 2002, culminating in the farce we have today – see:

…and what kills me is that I can read in the trail of bug reports a collective of people dancing around the problem, and never quite getting there:

There is AFAIK no standard answer for a failed login.
The client doesn’t know if the login failed because of a username/password mismatch or other server problem.

TB must asks you again for the password because the password may now different on the server. We had reports that Accounts got be disabled because of a changed password on the server and sending 3 times wrong login information (old password). This is worse than asking again for the new password.

Gmails answer is at a very bad point of the connection (as answer to the login), they should deny the connection early (before the login starts) or accept the login but close the connection after it.


The IMAP log quite clearly shows that the root problem is on gmail’s end, in that it dies on password authentication. IMAP’s lack of a clear differentiation between “authentication failed” and “server borkage” makes the right thing hard to do, although it seems that gmail is sending a BYE at the same time as the NO, which may make this particular case easy to solve.

In any case, the fact is that authentication failure–for whatever reason–brings up an interesting point. I set up bug 435306 some time ago as a forum for deciding under what circumstances passwords should be forgotten; it is therefore relevant to this discussion.

…basically shifting the blame and/or saying why things were done that way and not addressing that things are broken, and/or occasionally going off into debugging la-la-land (“There are lots of connections in TIME_WAIT”).

My frustration is echoed in this comment

“This is a chronic problem that I’m sure thousands of users are experiencing. It is a major and extremely frustrating annoyance which is actually one of the worst software problems we’ve experienced with any software. If Thunderbird wants wider adoption, this would be a key problem to take seriously and address. I’m sure that user frustration from this problem will drive users to alternatives. Nothing will drive away users faster than chronic hourly frustration of a password request dialog boxes.”

Same problem here, and it’s driving me up the f*cking wall!!! Multiple Gmail IMAP accts, and I’m so g*d*amned annoyed with this, I’m about to dump T-bird altogether. The app is for all intents and purposes, worthless. Most of the time, the dialog asking for the password for one or more of the accts, is displayed behind other windows, so I don’t even know for as long as I have the front window(s) up, that Tbird has stalled and is waiting for me to enter a password, a password that it was remembering just fine the day or hour before.

And, in some cases, repeated failure to login successfully, when provided a guaranteed correct password (same one that worked an hour or day before), trips Gmail’s security feature, which then requires finding Google’s “clear CAPTCHA” form.

This also happens with non-Gmail and POP accts. This bug MUST BE FIXED, or I will be dumping Tbird for good. This is not something trivial I can just overlook, the d*amned app is critically broken, IMO. And I’m one of the most loyal Tbird and Firefox fans on the planet, but it’s impossible to overcome this problem.

It’s usually around this point that some rabid FOSS (Free / Open Source Software) advocate says something about “enough eyes” and “shallow bugs” and invites me to fix the bug myself, implying that if I do not then I must be a “freeloader” – but they miss the point that beyond a certain size the collective IQ of a FOSS project tends to the root-mean-square of their IQ less one sigma, and that I become just yet another voice in the wilderness without the code-commit-karma enough to get putback.

At this point I would also like to remind you this has been going on since 2002 – plus I have more than enough shit to deal with in other FOSS software without adding Tbird to the list.

There are people on that bug report who have the right idea, but in the end it comes down to one poor schmuck who alas does not – and thus Thunderbird remains at an impasse. Commercial software is not always better in this regard, but often it is; got rewritten in the space between 2002 and 2007, and other clients have come and gone in that time.

I don’t expect anything will change with Tbird by virtue of my writing this post, but I will feel better, and maybe a few FOSS advocates will adjust their attitudes regarding the larger software ecology.

Just because it’s open source doesn’t mean it’s not shit.

14 Replies to “Thunderbird: Just because it’s open source doesn’t mean it’s not shit”

  1. Thank-you just just saved me so major pain. I was considering switching from to Thunderbird at home as part of considering consolidating from two user accounts (the two accounts representing two physical instantiations of human). with fast-user switching to one (with the goal being to use less memory). This wouldn’t have been an acceptable situation for me to end up in.

    I’ve seen this problem happen on with Thunderbird on Solaris connected to Sun’s email servers too but it is rare. Maybe if Thunderbird could be taught to use the host platforms keyring (keyring on MacOS X and gnome-keyring on Solaris et al) at least the “forgetfulness” part could be done away with.

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  3. I agree entirely. I think the problem with FOSS software in general is as you describe above “fix it yourself”. That’s well and good if you have the skills, ability, and time, but I have none of the above. Which in turns means I don’t use the software. I think the FOSS scene must get around to the idea that non-techs are going to end up using the software and that at some point these users are going to demand better software. If they’re told to fix it themselves then they’ll go away and just use Outlook Express again because it came with their OS (for the most part) and it works. Or they’ll ‘obtain’ a copy of Outlook, or whatever. Or stick to webmail. And then people will be confused as to why no-one likes Open Source Software.

    That was rambling and not well thought out – I hope the point is clear though.

  4. Thunderbird is by no means the worst of the FOSS e-mail clients with regards to lack of responsiveness to bug reports.

    The worst I’ve come across is Kmail.

    There are a large number of bug-reports/wish-list reports stating that the default status for an IMAP folder is to be included within the periodic check for new e-mails. All of these have been either ignored or closed with a “FIY” comment some years after being posted. As you can imagine, if you have a large number of folders, having search for new messages by default will slow things down, eventually causing the program to never finish the scan before it’s time for the next one and, in the process loads the IMAP server greatly.

    To compound this “scan by default” behaviour is the fact that you cannot change this status in bulk by selecting multiple folders and changing that option. Instead, you have to manually go through two dialog windows to et to the setting for each folder in turn. Any more than a very few folders and it’s unmanageable. (This ability has also been shunned/ignored.)

    The problem is so bad that it is impractical to set up a connection to an IMAP account with more than about 20 folders in existence without performing a DoS attack on your own machine and the IMAP server.

    So, if you think that the problem with Thunderbird and unreliable IMAP servers is bad, it pales into insignificance to Kmail’s problems.

  5. What about contributing and offering help to fix bugs like this? That is the meaning of open source.

  6. All software is crap, just some of it you can do something about and some you can’t. Thunderbird works fine for Donna, but then she’s not trying to use Google. Me, I stick to KMail under KDE which is now multi-platform (though I’d give it a while before trying to use it in anger on OSX, Windows or Solaris).

    I’m struggling with a CFD package that won’t run with the academic license that we purchased for it because it doesn’t recognise that feature code in FlexLM. Their companion software has an environment variable to set to address that but neither that nor their own documented envvar works, and neither appear as strings in the binaries.

    The vendor seems completely disinterested, and forces us to go via the local reseller who seem to be having a hard time getting this taken seriously. So over 2 months into our 12 month license and it’s still unusable…

    1. And there is the nub of the matter… “all software is crap”.. well said Chris, well said.

  7. @Chris We’ve had something similar with some seismic interpretation software. However, in this case we got a couple of techies from the vendor in… and they couldn’t get it to work either!

  8. Hmmmm. I have this same problem with Mac OS X and persnickety POP servers. I wind up canceling the dialog, which then takes the account off line. I then turn all accounts back on and get email again. That at least keeps the password in the application’s memory.

    It seems to me the solution is pretty simple: offer a third choice in whatever dialog pops up that says something like “Assume the password is good and the connection is fscked and try again later.”

  9. Had this problem in 2006 while trying to use different accounts with BTInternet, Yahoo and my own server mail. It randomly returns errors on all three, and now it does it constantly, even though it was working fine for a couple of months. It’s now 2010 and the problem still remains! There has to be a decent alternative to this crappy program!

  10. thunderbird is completely shit. the developers of it eat shit.
    where I configure user and password of a newsgroups account? its not possible! i hate this software

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