Mozilla wants to shed itself of Thunderbird, its popular cross platform email client. Although widely used on GNU/Linux, OS X and on Windows, the organization now seems to pretty much view it as a liability.
According to Mozilla executive chairperson Mitchell Baker in a company-wide memo written Monday and widely published online, the Thunderbird project is now seen as a “tax” by Mozilla because it distracts and takes time away from the organization’s software engineers.
“Engineers working on Thunderbird must focus on keeping up and adapting Firefox’s web-driven changes Engineers working on Firefox and related projects end up considering the competing demands of Thunderbird, and/or wondering if and how much they should assist Thunderbird. Neither project can focus wholeheartedly on what is best for it.”
Although she stresses that for the time being the status quo will be maintained, she makes clear that eventually Thunderbird must find a new home.
“Mark Surman [Executive Director] of the Mozilla Foundation and I are both interested in helping find a way for Thunderbird to separate from Mozilla infrastructure. We also want to make sure that Thunderbird has the right kind of legal and financial home, one that will help the community thrive.”
This is not entirely a surprise. Tech media have been quick to point out in reports on Monday’s memo that Mozilla’s flagship product, Firefox, once the dominant “third party” browser, has been bleeding market share for quite some time and has been eclipsed by Google’s Chrome, making it essential for the organization to focus on Firefox development.
For what it’s worth, Baker says as much in her memo, perhaps being a little patronizing and without going into the Firefox-bleeding-market-share part:
“Many inside of Mozilla, including an overwhelming majority of our leadership, feel the need to be laser-focused on activities like Firefox that can have an industry-wide impact. With all due respect to Thunderbird and the Thunderbird community, we have been clear for years that we do not view Thunderbird as having this sort of potential.”
However, her memo makes clear that this “overwhelming majority” doesn’t necessarily include those outside the leadership ranks. In other words, she might not have as much support among the rank and file as she would have us believe:
“There is a belief among some that living with these competing demands is good for the Mozilla project as a whole, because it gives us an additional focus, assists Thunderbird as a dedicated open source community, and also supports an open source standards based email client. This sentiment is appealing, and I share it to some extent. There is also a sense that caring for fellow open source developers is good, which I also share. However… Having Thunderbird has an additional product and focus is *not* good overall if it causes all of our products — Firefox, other web-driven products and Thunderbird — to fall short of what we can accomplish.”
In other words, she comes to bury Thunderbird, not to praise it.
The trouble with her reasoning, however, is that Mozilla plans to continue development of other products that would seem to be much more of a resource drain and much less likely to have any real “industry-wide impact,” as was pointed out by thumperward in a comment on LWN:
“[I]t’s somewhat disingenuous to imply that the only cross-platform FOSS mail client with any sort of market share is a burden on limited developer manpower for the Firefox desktop Web browser, whereas a complete phone operating system, designed to be sold in developing markets for the small fraction of time in which the hardware economy makes feature+ phones with a selling point below full Android devices practical, is not.”
Another commenter, JMB, observes another bit of irony by noting that, unlike Firefox, Thunderbird has little real competition:
“I am using both, Firefox and Thunderbird, on daily basis (Linux-only environment). But I am also puzzled — several people with similar habits are using Chrome today but all stuck to Thunderbird — and I am also not aware of any alternative. So switching browsers seems to be easier than switching mail clients…”
There are, of course, alternatives such as KMail, but many Linux users don’t consider them to be either as stable nor as capable as Thunderbird.
Media pundits have been focusing on the fact that email clients aren’t sexy anymore. That’s true. Desktop clients are now completely under many consumers’ radar in this mobile age when many have switched to cell phones as the email device of choice. Download numbers for Thunderbird are down, and have been for a while, which is part of the reason why Mozilla ended all but basic support for the project in 2012.
But just as mobile’s rise hasn’t meant the much predicted death of traditional computing, the need for stable and dependable email clients isn’t going away. There will always be a need for a good, solid app like Thunderbird.
It’s more likely that the real problem the higher-ups have with Mozilla is they can’t figure out how to monetize it. Sure, they could cut a deal with their friends at Yahoo to display ads in Thunderbird, similar to what Google does with Gmail, but that wouldn’t work. It would only drive away the user base.
I suspect we’ll see Mozilla sticking with projects that have the potential to be monetized, like Firefox and Firefox OS. Remember, the Mozilla Foundation might be a nonprofit, but the Mozilla Corporation which it owns is not. And Mozilla’s leaders seem to like to eat well: Ms. Baker raked in $500,000 in 2007 when she was still CEO of the corporation. Nice work if you can get it.
Meanwhile, not to worry. The song remains the same.
“This message is about the future and there’s a lot to work out. It’s explicitly not to announce changes in daily activities at this point. People using Thunderbird will not see any change in the product they use.”
At least, not until they do.
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