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.
In 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.