July 26, 2007

Mozilla is pushing Thunderbird out of the nest

Author: Shirl Kennedy

Mozilla Corp. CEO Mitchell Bakerannounced yesterday on her weblog that because of "the enormous energy and community focused on the Web, Firefox, and the ecosystem around it," the organization is seeking "a new, separate organizational setting" for the Thunderbird email client.

"Mozilla is exploring the options for an organization specifically focused on serving Thunderbird users," Baker said. "A separate organization focused on Thunderbird will both be able to move independently and will need to do so to deepen community and user involvement. We're not yet sure what this organization will look like." She went on to offer three options, each with its pros and cons:

  1. "Create a new non-profit organization analogous to the Mozilla Foundation -- a Thunderbird foundation."
  2. "Create a new subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation for Thunderbird."
  3. "Thunderbird is released as a community project much like SeaMonkey, and a small independent services and consulting company is formed by the Thunderbird developers to continue development and care for Thunderbird users."

There are discussion pages on the Mozilla wiki for The Future of Thunderbird and a The Future of Mail. People are also posting comments on Baker's blog, most of which tend toward the negative -- a few quite heatedly. Several people suggested renaming the Mozilla Foundation to the Firefox Foundation. "Vaughn" sees a Google-oriented conspiracy:

Since Google is a primary funder of the Mozilla Foundation, and since Google is actively developing and offering their own enterprise grade email ecosystem via Gmail and Google Apps, maybe they are wanting to kill off or hinder the development of Thunderbird to "encourage" those wanting to ditch the Outlook/Exchange juggernaut to move to Google, instead of utilizing a Thunderbird and Lightning integrate application with an open source groupware back end.

You know, in general, corporate funders of not-for-profits have ulterior motives, so this is a reasonable theory for why cutting Thunderbird from the Mozilla Foundation "makes sense" all of a sudden.

Meanwhile, a few posters are indeed contributing alternative scenarios for Thunderbird -- a few quite lengthy -- and some feel that, in the long run, it may work out better for Thunderbird if it is the focus of its own organization rather than Mozilla's "red-headed stepchild." Some folks pointed out that email clients like Thunderbird are becoming outmoded as more and more people read their email online through a Web browser. "Rafael" said he once was an avid Thunderbird user but no longer finds it practical to use an offline client:

On any given day I use three to five workstations, not to mention systems that are not mine. Synchronizing my email and Usenet settings is tedious at best. However, the real killer is that usually one of those systems ... being reformatted weekly. Constantly backing up my data, importing it, and then trying to keep them all synchronized is just too much work.

For the last few years I have switched to entirely online options. Gmail, Hotmail, etc., solve all of my email problems. Google Groups solves my Usenet problems. No more backups, importing, and synchronization. It really is an ideal system for me.

Scott MacGregor and David Bienvenu, Mozilla employees and Thunderbird's main developers, think Baker's suggested third option is the way to go:

We believe creating a separate independent company focused on the Thunderbird mission is the best way for us to take care of our users, while having the most flexibility to grow and support our mission.

Our vision is to create an independent company responsible for developing future versions of Thunderbird, supporting our users, and providing choice and innovation in the mail space. This company would embody the same principles that make Mozilla great: dedication to open source, transparency, community involvement, and doing right by our users.

The Thunderbird project would become a Mozilla community project like SeaMonkey and Camino. The code wouldn't move, the ways in which we all interact (bugzilla, CVS, IRC) would not change. The Thunderbird community would continue to interact and collaborate with other vested mail contributors (localizers, SeaMonkey developers, Penelope developers, QA volunteers, etc.) to further innovate around the mailnews platform. The new company would be responsible for the productization of Thunderbird, similar to the Mozilla Corp.'s productization of Firefox.

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