There are many good reasons to use Thunderbird 2 as your default desktop email client. Mozilla’s Thunderbird feature page lists some of them: advanced views, decent searching, security, junk mail screening, RSS feeds, add-on plugins and themes, cross-platform versions, and more. However, there is one feature […]

There are many good reasons to use Thunderbird 2 as your default desktop email client. Mozilla’s Thunderbird feature page lists some of them: advanced views, decent searching, security, junk mail screening, RSS feeds, add-on plugins and themes, cross-platform versions, and more.

However, there is one feature in Thunderbird that gets less press, yet is handled so beautifully as compared to other desktop clients it’s about time someone stood on a platform and sang its praises: identities. If you have ever had another email address (info@whatever.com) forwarded to your “main” email (really-me@domain.com) and have been frustrated that your replies are appearing to be from really-me@domain.com instead of info@whatever.com, you’ll want to understand how this underrated gem works.

First of all, you’ll need to be sure that the SMTP (outgoing) server you are using isn’t picky about what’s in the “From” field of your outgoing messages. Some ISPs (and hosts) will only allow you to send email through their server with a “From” domain that matches their email accounts. Identities probably won’t work in this case. I forward all of my email, both work and personal, through to an Island Email account (for spam cleansing) whose SMTP server does not have any problem with alternate “From” addresses. Authentication is by username & password.

In Outlook, Mail.app and other desktop email clients you can easily set up multiple signatures and multiple accounts, using the “from” email address that you want to appear in your outgoing message. You just have to be careful that account is not checked to download new mail on a schedule (since you only care about outgoing messages for that account), and you have to remember to select the correct account/signature on each message that you want to appear to be coming from that address. So if you hit reply on an email addressed to jane@email.com but it was received from the sally@domain.com account, it will use sally@domain.com as the “From” address along with the signature set for that account unless you manually change the account to jane@email.com before sending the message.

With Thunderbird, you do not have to remember to manually select the account you want. Thunderbird will look at the email the message is sent to, and will automatically select the proper identity when you reply. If you manually switch identities on your outgoing message, the signature file, formatting preferences and what will happen to the message after you send it switches on-the-fly.

Mozilla, you had me at hello.

Start with the default identity, and click the “Manage Identities” button on the screen:

You’ll see the default identity you established above. Click “Add…” to create a new one.

Enter in the information you want recipients to see. The key to identities is that you’re not entering the server address or username. It’s only about outgoing messages, and it links the outgoing action based on a matching email address in a received message’s “To:” field. How smart is that? This is much easier and more powerful than setting up a complicated system of accounts, filters and rules that act on that field.

Here you can tell Thunderbird what to do with email that is sent from that identity. Maybe you have a separate folder just for sent mail from that alternate address? Outlook or Mail.app would require you to set up a separate rule/filter to make sure those messages are filed separately. Thunderbird makes that easier.

Finally, you can change the formatting of your post and quoting style based on the outgoing identity.

Think about compiling all your various email accounts into one bucket, and then using this feature in Thunderbird to effortlessly switch back and forth between all the different email accounts you have, with only one mailbox to check and manage. Hit “reply” to an email addressed to a work-related address without worrying about your casual, personal contact information accidentally left at the bottom as you juggle signature file settings.

Personally, this is the killer Thunderbird feature that is the reason I haven’t launched Outlook in nearly a week. It’s not even new to Thunderbird 2. It was introduced in Thunderbird 0.5 (without the GUI to easily manage it). I just didn’t realize it existed before.

What’s your favorite underrated Thunderbird feature? Share in the comments.

  1. You can also choose a different SMTP server for each identity (see 2nd screenshot).

  2. Thank you. I have been using a “collection” IMAP account and sending email thru individual SMTP servers. Using Outlook, the incorrect “from” would occasionally slip out. Thunderbird will help. The automatic BCC is also welcome, Outlook lacks that basic feature.

  3. Umm, Mail.app has done this since the beginning of time.. is this really a new feature for the rest of the world?

  4. Venture Itch Friday, May 4, 2007

    Mozilla releases Thunderbird 2.0

    Mozilla releases Thunderbird 2.0 version of its popular open source email program upgraded in spirit of web 2.0. Thunderbird 2.0 comes with impressive number of new features – the most important of them are tagging of emails and easy interaction with …

  5. Valor, not quite. Mail.app has multiple accounts, not multiple identities that can be tied to a single account as I’m talking about here. Yes, you can put in multiple email addresses and select which one to use when replying, but it’s still a manual process when you’re replying to select the right one, and you can’t automatically have the message use a different SMTP server or file to a different location based on that choice.

    In general, Mail.app picks a profile based on the *account* that receives the email, not the email address. So if you have support@domain.com and mary@domain.com email coming in to the account you have identified as mary@domain.com, your reply (assuming you forget to change it manually) will always appear to be from mary@domain.com even if the incoming email is addressed to support@ and was forwarded to the mary@ mailbox by the mail host.

    Worse, Mail.app (at least in a previous version, not sure about the Tiger version) will “forget” the account that received the email if it was sent to a local folder by a filter. So *all* replies will be from the default account, regardless of the account that actually received the email. Sure, you can change it manually on each email, but who wants to do that?

  6. Great tip, thank you!

  7. SoftSaurus Monday, May 7, 2007

    [...] it’s well worth the effort if you’re juggling multiple accounts. —Rick Broida Thunderbird’s Most Underrated Feature: Identities [Web Worker [...]

  8. I just started forwarding my fastmail emails to a different address. This helps immensely! Thank you!

  9. nežinau.lt » Įrašų archyvas » Rašo vienam, atsako kitas Tuesday, May 8, 2007

    [...] Firefox priedų funkcijas ir Google Reader), bet pamatęs įdomų Thunderbird privalumą Web Worker Daily straipsnyje, nutariau susitvarkyti pats ir papasakoti [...]

  10. Wez Furlong Sunday, May 13, 2007

    Mail.app does indeed have multiple identities, albeit, hidden.
    You simply enter your email addresses separated by commas; this page has more details:


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