Thunderbird extension development hell

I had this great idea for an extension to Thunderbird that was neither trivial nor non-trivial, and thus interesting and doable (time will tell on the doable part). In fact, so much so that I figured someone must have done it already, so I went surfing the Thunderbird extensions trying to find it. I couldn’t. It appeared, so some inexplicable reason, I’d have to do it myself.

I soon found out why someone hadn’t done it before me: Thunderbird development is a nightmare.

The problem with developing for Thuderbird is that it’s a poor cousin to Firefox. All the dev doco revolves around Firefox, so as a function of that Firefox has hundreds of extensions (I think I saw a figure of 750 somewhere), sometimes multiple extensions with approximately the same functionality, whereas Thunderbird has dozens of extensions. Add to that the dev tools seem to be Firefox oriented, and I then find myself in development hell.

There’s documentation on extensions in general, but it all uses Firefox for it’s examples. So there’s nothing to cookbook-style leverage from. The doco says to install ChromeEdit (chrome being most of the user interface of the Mozilla suite), but it’s a Firefox only extension. Alternatively, you get your hands dirty editing user.js – but it’s not an alternative for Thunderbird developers, it’s how you do it. There’s a DOM inspector, but that has to be compiled in (it no longer comes as part of the Windows distribution) … or after a lot of looking, it turns out that the DOM inspector is available as a Thunderbird extension. Neither the recommended Extension Developer’s Extension nor Venkman (a IDE for javascript) work for Thunderbird, only for Firefox. I hadn’t gotten more than a quarter way through getting the recommened dev environment set up, and I’d burnt a few hours by this point, so I figured it was time to tell the world about this joy.

5 thoughts on “Thunderbird extension development hell

  1. daniel

    Perhaps the next Mozilla push/NYT fullpage ad should be to get people off Outlook Express into Thunderbird? Then it might gain the momentum that Firefox has.

    Me? I’m using Outlook 2003 for my home email. Convince me why I shouldn’t.

  2. Radek

    This is so true. I’m trying to find some Thunderbird extension information with no luck. All recommended readings involve Firefox extension! This is so frustrating!

  3. Olmec Sinclair

    I have just started looking into developing an extension. I have used thunderbird for years as a great cross platform mail solution (I dual boot windows / linux and this means I can share my emails between OS). Anyway, I’m looking for resources to assist with this. I have used Ted’s extenssion developer to kick start stuff… and now I have my very own toolbar icon…. but I want more.
    Any news on this front will be greatly appreciated.

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