No Money In Email Clients

It seems there is no money in the email client space.

Some of the finest minds at Mozilla were unable to make Thunderbird financially self-supporting, having tried several methods, and now an Indigogo campaign to raise $100K for the Geary email client, with support from Bytemark and CiviCRM and with publicity on TechCrunch, has not met its target (they reached just over half the total). I have no inside insight into what’s going on at Postbox, but their last major release was in November 2011, most changes since then have been bug fixes, and most of their recent blog posts have been about price reductions or ways to get it cheaper.

Is it simply that webmail is good enough for most people?

28 thoughts on “No Money In Email Clients

  1. Also, Sparrow (sparrowapp.com) got bought by Google and ceased development last year.

    I think you’re mostly right that for most people webmail is good enough. Outlook rules supreme in corporate IT, and presumably most people are happy with the email client that comes with their smartphone or tablet. And I admit to switching from Thunderbird to Apple’s Mail app on my Mac because I found it simpler.

  2. Yes.

    The current crop of webmail clients (I prefer GMail, but my wife likes outlook.com better, actually) is very good. If you use POP3, then webmail affords you with better access to your email everywhere. If you use IMAP, then webmail latencies aren’t actually much worse than native client latencies.

    From where I sit, the browser keeps eating native desktop software. I could get by with just a browser and a terminal these days, although I still prefer native feed readers (but that’s going to get harder with Reader’s demise) and local storage of audio and video still makes more sense. On touch devices (particularly phones) it’s not as clear because there’s more of a performance bonus for removing the intermediate browser layers, but I think that’s coming down RSN.

    Still, a good webmail client upholding Mozilla values might be valuable.

  3. Thunderbird main market is Enterprise.

    Regular people have just one account and obviously are going to prefer a simple webmail. If you have to check 2 or more accounts or use a custom provider, things change, and that’s Enterprise.

    Thunderbird’s mistake was not to focus on the Enterprise features an aim to the ones that webmail users demanded, a battle that was already lost.

  4. Is it simply that webmail is good enough for most people?

    More than “good enough” – web-based clients are in some ways outright superior to their native counterparts. In particular, the fact that they’re accessible from *anywhere* that has an internet connection, without any kind of complex setup. The spread of smartphones somewhat reduces the importance of that, but don’t lose track of the fact that for all the fuss made over them, not everyone has one. Some people need to check their mail from communal PCs in hostels and libraries and internet cafes, and for them, something like GMail is perfect.

    Another element too – desktop clients primarily work with servers running POP or IMAP, run by an employer or ISP. And some people don’t want to use the provided email, since it’s too much hassle whenever they switch jobs, or change ISPs – or are a child of the account owner who wants their own address. For all those people, a webmail provider offers a much more practical option.

  5. I truly dislike webmail and it always surprises me that people are using it.

    I would use Thunderbird on my Android phone if it was available but I guess that the Firefox OS mail app will be ported at some point.

    Outlook and even Lotus Notes have been very accomplished for a long time on the enterprise side.

    I have 11 email accounts in my Thunderbird instance and find it fantastic that I can link to external calendars using Lightning etc.

    As far as the financial side though, that one is difficult because we can’t just add search providers to the search box because nobody wants them to see their private emails.

  6. I think, webmail is fine for users, that don’t want to use any advanced features and want it simple – mainly for people, who uses computer occasionally or not as main “business”.

    For me, webmail has many disadvantages. For example, I want to configure mail client differently on different computers or sometimes I’m offline, so I can easily read and write e-mail, manage appointments etc. I’m considers webmail as “emergency” client. I have several mail accounts, it would be VERY uncomfortable to manage them individually. I tried to use webmail, only just out of curiosity and I’m sure, that webmail is not for me.

    By the way, even I bought Outlook for my personal usage at home.

  7. Is it simply that webmail is good enough for most people?

    I think you are forgetting (or simply objecting to) a big part of your organisation’s current mission — 1) to show that there need be (and often already is) no difference in the capabilities of the web versus native applications and 2) that the web is immensely more convenient than native in many ways (particularly in the areas of ease of development, deployment and use). Webmail won out (with me and almost everyone else) because (1) is already true for webmail and (2) even moreso. And that’s not just a good thing, it’s a *fantastic* thing.

    The problem with webmail today is the obnoxious level of centralisation. Please, please, please give me an (open source) webmail client I can throw on my own webhost (just like WordPress, but even easier if possible) that works as well as a GMail or Thunderbird. I’d then not have a single qualm about webmail.

    • You make a good point – I guess I should clarify my thinking. So… this is not about the fact that these clients are native code vs. web apps, but the fact that they are installed (and so usable only where installed and configured) vs. being on a website.

      The point about centralization is a good one, although relatively few people have either the resources or the technical knowhow to take a WordPress-like Webmail client and just “throw it on a webhost”. Perhaps we’d get a SAAS model going around it, I don’t know. Is there already software out there which has high quality modern webmail on the front end and speaks to an arbitrary IMAP server on the backend? Presumably what we are building in Firefox OS Mail would provide a lot of the code needed for that…

      • Most of what you describe reminds me of the Raindrop project; the goal was to provide an “open” version of webmail, where you could transparently host your own instance, and centralize your different communication channels into one single place. The project never took off mostly, IIRC, because it required too many resources, and there was no way Mozilla could afford to run it and provide it for free.

  8. Not just that webmail is goo denough for a certain range of users – for an even larger range, WhatsApp and Facebook are good enough for all communication they need, and they don’t really want or really email at all.

  9. Completely agree with Nukeador … the idea of Thunderbird as “the client for the rest of us” or “the client for newbies” was completely wrong, because newbies don’t use clients. Partially because of marketing and partially because of seeming simplicity of use, beginners (and not only them) use webmails. However, when you talk with professional who uses email for his work, has three or four email accounts which he wants to follow, gets couple of hundred new emails a day, then it is obvious that webmail is just a joke for him.

    What do you use for your emails?

  10. For those who spend serious amount of time around email, webmail just doesn’t cut it. Thunderbird with a bunch of extensions means I can deal with my email in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

    Many of the people I mix with in personal life don’t bother with email any longer. Killed by spam and bad webmail littered with adverts.

    For business though, email remains a primary method of communication. Perhaps Thunderbird support (coupled with IMAP/CalDAV provision) would be a viable business model?

  11. Two things:

    1) what Simon says above, about webmail being markedly superior for many use cases, is absolutely correct. I access my mail from five different devices on three different platforms. Having to reconfigure, reorganize, redownload, etc. all my mail all the time would be a nightmare. This is why I did not give to Geary- going back to a desktop mail client would be a step backwards for me.

    2) the idea that webmail is only for people who aren’t “serious” about their mail hasn’t been true since 2004. Gmail is, without doubt, the best email client I’ve ever used for handling high volumes of mail, and I handle a *lot *of email- I’ve cut back on a lot of mailing lists and other automated sources to get myself down to about 8,000 emails a month, according to my stats. The filtering (mostly because it is centralized and not per-client) is excellent; the keyboard shortcuts are excellent; the conversation view, once you get used to it, is vastly better for high-volume mail processing than tree views; and if you’re using vast arrays of folders for your mail, you’re probably doing mail wrong.

    It is quite true that all the open source webmail options are awful and unusable, which is why I would give to a Geary-like fundraiser *for a webmail project* in a heartbeat, and would pay for a hosted version of the resulting product. But it is very important to remember that the rest of the world has moved on while we’ve stagnated.

    • How do you do offline email? That’s a key use case for me, when I’m travelling.

      • I don’t. And really only rarely miss it – I get other stuff done instead. (There is also less and less time I’m actually offline when traveling, between many planes now having wifi and my phone acting as a hotspot. I’m also much better at inbox zero these days.) Gmail’s web client actually does have an offline mode, but I haven’t tried it.

        • (Which isn’t to say it is a use case that should be completely ignored. But dealing with that use case has probably looms larger than it should, given how diminished it is, between mobile devices for train travel, basic fact that the vast majority of people spend very little of their time on planes, and increased availability of wifi for those few of the power elite who do spend a ton of time on planes.)

  12. “Is it simply that webmail is good enough for most people?”
    Yes.
    This is why Thunderbird shouldn’t be an email client but rather a webmail server-side product that brings in the Mozilla principles to this space. I’d like to be able to keep my data. I’d like to not have Goolge read all my emails before I do. I’d like to do this while maintaining access to a very good web-based UI that I can access from anywhere.
    This could also fall within a bigger need for bringing the Mozilla principles to the Cloud. I think there’s a need for users to be able to easily run their personal cloud that would hold all their data; email, calendar, bookmarks, RSS reader, contacts, files, social network node, pictures, etc.
    Mozilla can work on a way to allow for currently existing open source software to be deployed very easily to a private secured box in the cloud for every user.
    I’ve blogged about this before. Here’s the post:
    http://www.amreldib.com/2012/09/personal-clouds.html

    • +1
      I love this idea.
      There’s some sort of project/idea support and/or funding available. I saw a post recently, but I cannot locate it at this time.
      Perhaps it was associated with Labs?

      • Please if you do find it, let me know. I’d love to use/test/build something like that. I can be reached on twitter @AmrEldib

  13. Most of my friends (non-computer people) had no idea that something other than webmail exists. When I told them about Thunderbird, they couldn’t even imagine what it is.

    Once I installed Thunderbird for them, they *loved* it. Many of them thanked me many times in retrospective, because
    * They can check multiple accounts at the same time (and it turns out that most average users do have at least 2 email accounts)
    * They can check mail without entering the web address, jumping through homepages, login, intermediate “start” pages with ads, and other clickery. They click the Thunderbird icon, and your new mail is right there.
    * Thunderbird is cleaner than most webmail, better overview

    And again, these are people who can’t change the font size on their computer. They love Thunderbird, once they try it.

  14. The webmail experience is not good.

    For some hosts, the user has to log in every time (TalkTalk), or every so often. The webmail interface is overloaded with ads. Mail providers keep redesigning the interface at the slightest whim (this confuses and angers many of my customers). Attaching files is a pain because *Firefox cannot be set as the default native mail client*, meaning that I have to explain to people that the “email this file” link in Explorer is not going to cut it, and instead you have to go the long way around.

    Thunderbird is horrendous to configure. Once it’s set up, it’s often better for customers (as far as my experience goes), especially for attachments (how they expect it to work, unlike webmail), but I could never imagine them discovering and configuring it themselves.

    I’ve written a little “rant” of sorts about what Mozilla should be doing with Thunderbird (and RSS too) here: http://camendesign.com/blog/failed

    • We dropped the ball on sorting out the ability for websites to register as protocol and MIME type handlers. And for Firefox to register with the OS to handle those protocols or MIME types when they did. registerContentHandler only works for (irony) RSS. It looks like registerProtocolHandler does work, but it seems never to have caught on as webmail providers don’t seem to encourage you to do it for their webmail. I wonder why.

      • I know of at least one big webmail provider that doesn’t offer mailto: handlers, because they rely on both cookies and URL parameters to secure the session. With mailto: urls, the URL parameter is missing and the active session won’t be accepted.

        On web app you have problems that simply don’t exist on local apps, because 1) the web is fundamentally meant to browse / read unknown sources, and having trusted apps in the middle doesn’t mix well 2) web servers can change the code at any time, further reducing trust.

  15. I *hope* that the e-mail client isn’t dead.

    My current setup is for all my personal mail to go into gmail (but in and out via my chrisfleming.org name), my work email goes through a kolab hosted instance that host.

    This is then picked up by offlineimap which I have running on both a machine in my flat and/or my laptop. I currently use mutt to check them.

    I used to use thunderbird, but it just got too slow for me, especially when dealining with lot’s of e-mail.

    I think that geary does have potential, It would be amazing to see them do well. I think that to get the kind of funding that need from people; I think they need to be more revolutionary in the way they tackle e-mail, possibly taking some cues from the kind of thing that sparrow was doing.

  16. For me “fat” mail clients not working is about dodgy IMAP support–servers like Exchange, GMail etc don’t offer anything more sophisticated than IDLE (if they did it might compete with their own preferred way of doing things–Exchange wants you to licence ActiveSync, Google want to show you ads in their webmail, etc).

    Thunderbird, unlike many mobile clients, supports COMPRESS, CONSTORE and QRESYNC which if linked with a decent IMAP server (eg Cyrus or Dovecot) provides an excellent user experience over crappy mobile broadband (think sitting on a train losing your connection going under a tree–with CONDSTORE/QRESYNC you can reconnect in a couple of packets, without it’s more like a couple of stations..)

    (Non-free) “fat” clients don’t seem to support ActiveSync either, for those corporately inclined. If it’s good enough for a phone, why not for a laptop?

    The webmail UX continues to get better and better. Keyboard shortcuts, drag & drop (in a variery of clients including free ones such as roundcube) and (limited, not in my direct experience) offline support are here today. Pretty much the only thing left is multiple accounts, which you can manage if you want to sign all your data away (as an increasing number seem to these days) to eg Google.

    So, there’s not much of a battlefield left I suppose. I did once idly suggest Thunderbird as a Firefox extension, but at the time there was too much C++ in it I think. If the whole shebang was in javascript it might be easier to maintain, run on mobile etc.

  17. Maybe it’s as simple as adding a nag message to the Thunderbird website and/or the app itself, trying to persuade people to donate to Mozilla to support development. It will surely work on some small percentage of users.