April 26th, 2016

Mozilla a Step Closer to Thunderbird Decision

The Mozilla Foundation has hired Simon Phipps to examine and evaluate options for the Thunderbird desktop client, which is seeking a new home. His initial report was made public on Monday.

On Monday, Mozilla’s executive director Mark Surman posted an update on Mozilla’s efforts to find a new home for its Thunderbird email client on his personal blog. In early December, Mozilla announced that it wanted to shed itself of Thunderbird, a project that’s been associated with Mozilla since the start of the foundation.

Mozilla Thunderbird logoIn a nutshell, the Mozilla Foundation finds that continuing to maintain and development Thunderbird distracts from its current focus of getting Firefox back on track. Thunderbird is a huge project, requiring much in the way of resources, but has a user base that’s been in decline since 2012, as many users are turning away from desktop email clients in favor of web based email services.

Although the email project remains under the care of the Mozilla Foundation, Thunderbird has been entirely a volunteer effort since 2012, when Mozilla did away with its Mozilla Messaging division.

The good news is that the folks at Mozilla seem to be determined to find Thunderbird a good home where it will be able to grow and find newfound success. This isn’t surprising. As Surman pointed out in his post, the project is quite popular among those associated with the foundation — but that popularity is also contributing to the problem Mozilla has with keeping the project in-house.

“Many people who work on Firefox care about Thunderbird and do everything they can to accommodate Thunderbird as they evolve the code base,” Surman wrote, “which slows down Firefox development when it needs to be speeding up. People in the Thunderbird community also remain committed to building on the Firefox codebase. This puts pressure on a small, dedicated group of volunteer coders who struggle to keep up. And people in the Mozilla Foundation feel similar pressure to help the Thunderbird community with donations and community management, which distracts them from the education and advocacy work that’s needed to grow the open internet movement on a global level.”

In order to evaluate Thunderbird’s options, Mozilla has hired Simon Phipps, a consultant who has a long history as a FOSS advocate. Until last year, he was president of the Open Source Initiative and in the early 21st century was servings as the head at Sun Microsystems’ open source program when Solaris, Java and other Sun properties were open sourced.

In his April 7 initial report, which Mozilla has made available online, Phipps examines three primary options open to Thunderbird, as well as four “alternative” options which are mostly not feasible at present. The later group is topped by GNOME, which indicated that it wouldn’t be interested in taking the project on at this time.

The Apache Software Foundation is also included in the second group. Although the foundation took OpenOffice under its wings a few years back, this would probably be a no-starter for Thunderbird. For one thing, Apache’s major focus is on enterprise software, with consumer oriented OpenOffice being something of an exception and taken under pressure from IBM and Oracle.

Perhaps more problematic is a foundation rule that requires all code under its care to be relicensed under the Apache License, with any code that can’t be relicensed needing to be removed. Whether an adoption by Apache could even be considered would depend, for starters, on how much code could be easily relicensed and how much would need to be rewritten.

The other two options in the “alternative” group are to form an association with Software In The Public Interest, which is mainly a financial clearing house for projects and wouldn’t offer much in the way of technical support, or to become totally independent by creating a Thunderbird Foundation, which Phipps doesn’t think would be a good idea at this time.

“I would not recommend this option as a first step” he wrote. “However, it may become appropriate in the future for Thunderbird to separate from its new host and become a full independent entity, and the ability to do this should be considered in selecting a new home.”

Topping the list of feasible new homes is the Software Freedom Conservancy, which most likely leads the way because it’s the only organization on the list that’s officially announced that it’s willing to host the project. The conservancy is a U.S. non-profit charity which provides services to free software projects. Currently the organization has 33 member projects, which includes Wine, Samba, phpMyAdmin, Inkscape and Git.

From what I can tell, the conservancy would not offer much technical assistance, which in this case might be a good thing: “Conservancy provides a nonprofit home and infrastructure for FLOSS projects. This allows FLOSS developers to focus on what they do best — writing and improving FLOSS for the general public — while Conservancy takes care of the projects’ needs that do not relate directly to software development and documentation.”

According to tax records, the organization currently funnels about $1 million annually to its projects. Phipps wrote that if Thunderbird and Mozilla chose this route, “Thunderbird would be one of the largest projects at Conservancy, both in terms of project participants and potentially in terms of finances.”

Second on Phipps’ short list is my hands down favorite, The Document Foundation, the people behind LibreOffice. Phipps said that the organization has been approached by Thunderbird and received an encouraging reception. However, “TDF has not made a final decision [on] whether to host Thunderbird yet and would only take a final decision once the [official] request to join was made.”

The third option would be for the Mozilla Foundation to become an “organizational host for an independent Thunderbird,” which Mozilla is evidently willing to do. Under this scenario, “Technical management is outside this scope, so the community will need to devise project hosting amd manage repositories, build, release and downloads.”

Right now, it’s anybody’s guess as to when Thunderbird’s fate will be known. We’ll let you know something as soon as we know something.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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16 comments to Mozilla a Step Closer to Thunderbird Decision

  • 3arn0wl

    I’ve heard it suggested before that people prefer to use web-based e-mail rather than apps, which I find surprising given that e-mail apps are still being written for smart-phones…

    Thunderbird is an easy to use, yet very-well featured e-mail app. My hope is that it can be maintained as it is, as I don’t think it needs developing any further. As with any FOSS app, I guess, it’ll thrive so long as there are those who care sufficiently about it to maintain it.

  • tracyanne

    One of the reasons I don’t use Thunderbird, and instead use Claws-Mail, is because using Thunderbird is too much like using a Web based Client such as Gmail.

  • 3arn0wl

    Actually. Partially going back on what I said, perhaps Thunderbird should be developed across smart-phone platforms, and take on the proprietary alternatives. It’d kick-ass, imo.

  • Juan

    Problem is email is not sexy and people are clueless. Thunderbird just works, I have two gmail accounts and 6 other imap accounts all working together no issues. Back when Mozilla had issues with Debian I went with their community version no problems either.

    Mozilla has being shooting itself in the foot for the past few years. Their Firefox OS is a drain in resources basically because they go and do a phone OS that shows promise (I got a couple of phones and tested it) and they went the same route that everyone went (got married with a Telco) end result: you get a phone that kind of works with cero updates from mobile company and becomes useless a few months down the road.

    No wonder why Firefox sucks in Linux lately, all their efforts went behind a phone OS that will die (I don’t care what anyone says, it will) simple because you can’t compite even with the cheapest Android if you go into the markets with half baked OS, no real support or future updates.

    As long as Mozilla keeps trying to develop a phone that will go nowhere they would cut lose those parts that seems to make no money: Thunderbird.

  • Unbeknownst

    It’s a relative world IMHO.

    A couple of years ago, I used surreptitiously Thunderbird at work. We are a Windows shop, but being an almost Linux-only user at home, I felt how difficult Windows is from a mere user perspective.

    Now without admin rights over the machine I use, this capability is lost, but management has been more sensible and is allowing things like 7zip and vim recently. Firefox is also allowed but not to my profile (since I’m no longer in the IT area, I suppose).

    Anyway, my experience was wonderful compared to what Lookout offers. I was specially impressed by Thunderbird’s mail search features as well as its user name search (Outlook has that, too, although not as efficient).

    The current view is that Thunderbird is hindering Firefox, but the opposite also happens, me thinks: maybe Thunderbird can get better, leaner, faster if it is developed separately.

    My favorite is the same as Christine’s, if not for the TDF’s natural need for a Libreoffice integrated mail client, because of their prowess at reorganizing code, already abundantly shown.

    But open source being what it is, they could use it well even if it is hosted by the Software Freedom Conservancy.

    I’m actually optimist about these two programs I love, Thunderbird and Firefox… things are set out to improve IMHO.

  • José Almeida

    Without disregarding the other options, the only effective solution to Thunderbird is TDF. The sinergy is obvious and the know how of TDF fits perfectly. I would recommend some extra efforts towards this option.

  • The only reason it is unpopular is that it doesn’t seem to have good, simple connectivity and documentation. I’m a bit gutted as I only finally got a shell script to generate my scaffold Thunderbird apps the other day; with still much more to do before it’s at all useful.

  • Mah Fellow Murkuhn

    I’ve used Thunderbird (Icedove) for a long time, and I like it, and would hate to move to another client. The thing I like most is that it supports enigmail transparently, and thus easy encryption/decryption of email. Without that feature, I won’t consider any other client. No PGP, or at least some known secure encryption, no sale to me. There are new email clients being developed, such as Nylas, but none offer encryption, AFAIK.

  • jelabarre59

    I use Thunderbird as a nice and clean, unified and consistent interface to all those mail service that are usually considered “WebMail” services. Recently I even found the last couple holdouts had finally implemented IMAP, so now no problem with all of them synchronizing properly. Using a web browser for email is such a clunky, cluttered and slow way to do email. Heck, you’d be better off using MSOutlook for your email than a web browser.

    Go ahead and let TBird dump Firefox as a base. What they should do is just *fork* the Gecko engine and bring it back from the disastrous abomination the current managers of FF/Mozilla have turned it into. Clean it up, then let NewGecko kick Webkit/Blink to the curb.

  • I have been using Thunderbird as my main email client for the last 6 years, since I migrated to using Linux full time on my desktop. I just like the ability to download all emails from my various accounts, and keep a hard copy of them. Secondly it is so simple to move all my Thunderbird accounts, emails and contact from one Linux distro to another. Thunderbird does the job, and I hope it doesn’t get pushed to one side and left to rot with no new updates. That will be another thing gone from Linux.

  • Sum Yung Gai

    I use Thunderbird, with the Lightning calendar extension, at home. It actually works remarkably well. Ever since OpenOffice.org got rid of its “Outlook clone” mail client from the StarOffice days, I’d hoped to see Thunderbird integrated into OO.o somehow. Perhaps TDF might be interested in making that happen.

    One thing that would be really nice to see is MAPI support in T’bird. That would allow me to use it in enterprises that depend on MS Exchange Server. Fortunately, an example code base already exists, Evolution’s MAPI connector.

    –SYG

  • Askfor

    I dumped Thunderbird when they introduced new mail account creation ‘wizard’. At the moment I am using Seamonkey. I don’t really care what happens to Thunderbird unless someone removes that wizard.

  • Eddie G.

    I don’t care where TBIRD ends up. As long as I can continue to use it and it gets updates regularly…then all is well I have different email accounts..m and managing them via Web just plain sucks. But when you do that from a singular interface..one that’s customizable?…then dealing in emails is awesome! To whomever is in charge of making the decision?..hurry up and make one..m and then let TBIRD be all it can be!!!

  • Francine H.

    I’ve used Thunderbird since 2005 and am very happy with it.

  • Carlos

    I hope they continue developing it. I love it and use it in production in our office with Zimbra. I hope they give it a facelift and build upon there awesome plugin system. The Zimbra web mail is good but having a desktop client is still the perfered method of getting thing done and it’s integrated with Quickbooks for emailing my SO and PO’s to clients and vendors.

  • R. Burtrum

    Wow, I just managed to make TB & Lightning my everyday productivity tool. I would hate to see it go. Being able to create a task as a TASK and then clone it to a calendar EVENT and then manage all with email has been a great tool for me. I use each Task on a Calendar as my primary note-taking space. Each Task is dragged to different days as the project progresses. I’ve pretty much stopped keeping file docs for projects until the project is done. BTW, I would like to have TIME TRACKING for billable hours and I wouldn’t need anything else, but I don’t have the time to learn how to develop it.