Thunderbird: The Right Decision?

I plan to write two more blog posts about the Thunderbird announcement. I would have written them earlier, but have been maxed out with other things. Perhaps leaving time for the situation to settle down is good.

This one is: was the right decision reached? The next one will be: was it reached and communicated the right way?

I think the plan is the right one for Thunderbird and for Mozilla.

There is an open question about whether Mozilla wants to have an impact on the messaging market in the same way we had an impact on the browser market and we want to have an impact on the mobile phone OS market. Arguments for: it’s an “open internet” thing, it fits the mission, and it needs doing. Arguments against: any organization, no matter what size, can execute well on only one thing at once, and that slot is taken. However, wherever you stand on that, I think it’s clear that Thunderbird is not the vehicle for any future messaging innovation.

I am a keen Thunderbird user; I’ve been using it since I switched from Netscape Communicator [Update: Neil suggests I may have gone via Mozilla Suite mail first; that’s probably true, although I did stick with Communicator Mail for a long time], and while it has its long-standing minor quirks and annoyances, it’s a solid desktop email client which deals pretty well with the 35,000 messages I receive and the 5,700 I send each year (not including spam or bugmail).

But we’ve been trying to turn Thunderbird into the “messaging Firefox” for years and, as Mitchell has pointed out, it hasn’t worked. I suggest that future innovation in the messaging space is going to be via something that’s ‘of the web’. We are doing an HTML and JS mail client for B2G. That codebase (which will not carry over much from Thunderbird, I am told) should be a much better platform for trying to, for example, free users from proprietary messaging systems.

And if that’s true, then if we have some of our smart people working full time on Thunderbird, then they aren’t working on either other messaging projects, or something else which has a higher direct impact on the success of our mission. In that light, scaling back MoCo investment in Thunderbird makes good sense.

So, then, the plan as outlined seems to me like a good way to enable those who care about Thunderbird’s future to drive it, while making sure Mozilla as an organization can stay focussed. It opens up opportunities for non-paid Mozillians to take more of a role in Thunderbird’s development, which I think is a a great thing, and may pave the way for a similar trend in other Mozilla projects. And it makes sure the current users can continue to use a great product.

8 thoughts on “Thunderbird: The Right Decision?

  1. Really? This is a meaningful post indeed and it comes totally unexpected. A real revelation. Mozilla took the right decision about Thunderbird.

    Dude, that is pretty much what everybody else said. What else, it is like to expect people from Microsoft coming out saying “you know what, Windows 8 is useless crap unless you are on a tablet”. If you want to stay on the boat, It is the obviously right decision, it drives innovation, the best and boldest Windows ever made.

    In both cases, Mozilla and Microsoft, what the million users had to say about it was, is and will be completely irrelevant. And same goes with options left. With the only difference that Mozilla, instead of dumping Thunderbird, took the usual Open Source way that is “if you don’t like it, fork it or go developing your own project”.

    I don’t really understand why I should clap my hands at Mozilla for “boot to gecko”, which I won’t ever use, while a software I need for my everyday work becomes a dead end. I am not masochist.

    • This post is a necessary precursor to the next one. I think it’s important to separate the process and the conclusion.

      Mozilla will still be putting maintenance, build and release effort into Thunderbird – which is more than they put into SeaMonkey, and that project is thriving. I am confident that Thunderbird will be around for some time yet.

      Also, if this is “software you need for your every day work”, have you considered contributing (with time or finance)?

  2. Thunderbird is really important for me. I have developed a number of themes for it (to make it better in my own humble opinion). Drastic revolutions of TB are not liked because it impacted the users and the email flow of them too much, but making it faster, more reliable and more stable is really important. So, consolidation of the current code base, whilst enjoying the improvement of the Mozilla code base (driven by Firefox, Mobile and B2G) is a good way forward, but one has to keep focus on the performance and stability of TB. It is really used by millions of people every day to manage their mail.

  3. “I think it’s clear that Thunderbird is not the vehicle for any future messaging innovation.”

    This point deserves clarification.

    Mozilla have decided that they will no longer be using Thunderbird as a vehicle for driving messaging innovation.

    That does not mean that Thunderbird lacks the capacity for innovation. One only needs to look at the recent development history to see what innovations are coming out of Thunderbird. With respect to this innovation, it is an odd time to call “tools down”.

    Just because Mozilla has chosen to stop funding messaging innovation through Thunderbird, that does not mean the community lacks the capability to drive that innovation. We should keep Mozilla’s decision separate from where the community may take the product.

    On a separate note, I want to call out the statement “any organization, no matter what size, can execute well on only one thing at once, and that slot is taken”. That is provably false. Look at Amazon (AWS + online retailer), Microsoft (Windows, Office, XBox), Google (Docs, Search, etc) for only a few examples. There is no evidence to support such a claim. That’s what business units are for.

    • I agree that “any” is too strong; perhaps I should have written “messaging innovation on a world-changing scale like we achieved with Firefox”. Thunderbird certainly has the potential to become an incrementally better desktop email client.

      The last statement you take issue with requires further elaboration, which will come in future blog posts. I am not saying a company can only have one product at once; I am saying that a company can only take one potentially world-changing thing and make it actually world-changing at once. Look for more on this soon.

  4. Pingback: Thunderbird: The Right Process? | Hacking for Christ

  5. > I think it’s clear that Thunderbird is not the vehicle for any future messaging innovation.

    Thunderbird is valuable, was neglected for a very long period of time, and has recently been slowly regaining traction.

    Mozilla has simply given up too soon, mostly because Thunderbird is far less sexy than Firefox.

    But it’s an important project that is pretty much without peer – no other open-source email client comes even vaguely close to it’s capabilities.

  6. There’s been a large absence of mentioning the instant messaging integration that Thunderbird has just gotten… isn’t that goal in effect turning Thunderbird into the Firefox of messaging?