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My Preferred Business Email Setup With Thunderbird and Notmuch (and Why it Doesn't Work)

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This is a software rant article on an email setup for business use and why Thunderbird prevents me from using it like that.

First, lets start with some requirements for my business email setup.

Requirements

I'm old-school and need to run my email setup on my own computer and not a web-based one like Google provides with GMail where no email is stored on my computer.

Using an Emacs-based email client or mail user agent (MUA) has many advantages for somebody using Org mode all day long. Linking to emails within my notes is easy, composing emails within Emacs provides a decent editor, even composing decent HTML emails is easily done using Org mode, and so forth.

I'd love to use an Emacs-based email setup like notmuch. It's tag-based which allows for multi-classification. Using this, I might play around with various workflows that are not possible in a classic MUA.

Unfortunately, in business life you need to be able to use a graphical MUA that is able to create and handle appointment invitations properly. Currently, my business device is running GNU/Linux. This is why I need to run Thunderbird in any case.

Occasionally, I need to encrypt and/or sign emails using the OpenPGP standard.

The Email Setup I Want to Have

Running multiple MUA in parallel in a naïve way would result in having to store all emails multiple times: Thunderbird is downloading emails to its local storage and some kind of IMAP-fetcher (like isync) is fetching emails to a different local email storage.

When it comes to storage formats for emails, there are two standard formats: the good old mbox and the more modern Maildir format.

According to the notmuch FAQs, the Maildir storage format is the way to go for notmuch setups. This is how I came up with the following setup plan:

Desired email setup with unified Maildir holding the emails. (click for a larger version)

The Reality Check

By default, Thunderbird is storing its emails in an mbox format. However, I found this and that page that explained how to switch Thunderbird to Maildir format. There are some warnings attached: it's not a standard Maildir. I thought I'd give it a try.

Unfortunately, I had to find out that the warnings are there for a reason. Thunderbird's Maildir implementation is that different from standard Maildir that I ended up with two separate sets of emails mixed in one sub-hierarchy when using isync and Thunderbird to fetch emails. Furthermore, Thunderbird can not access emails in a standard Maildir storage.

This was quite a show-stopper for my original plan. According to this, Thunderbird needs its own email storage in any case:

alterantive-text for the image
Possible email setup with Thunderbird having its own email storage. (click for a larger version)

My Current Setup

My private email setup is unchanged since decades: a mutt that runs directly on my mail server within a tmux-session. That's not part of this article.

The business setup I'm using at the moment consists of a simple Thunderbird. I had to forget any other MUA experiment since I did not want to deal with two different email storages.

For linking emails, I've found thunderlink which does the trick. When reading an email, I might press Ctrl-Shift-1 and a formatted message-ID link gets put into my clipboard I might paste somewhere else.

Thunderbird has some minor flaws here and there but is OKish.

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