Updated on June 9, 2015
On July 2nd 2012 an email came in for all Mozilla contributors aka Mozillians with a clear message:
“…continued innovation on Thunderbird is not the best use of our resources given our ambitious organizational goals…”.
It was a more political correct answer to say “we don’t care about it anymore“, I believe. After the announcement, the Thunderbird project had no employees assigned any longer and volunteers were asked to chip in. Mitchell Baker, the Chairwoman of the Mozilla Corporation also announced it on her blog.
As we speak, Mozilla employs over 1000 people (probably around 400 back in 2012), yet Thunderbird is so unimportant that not even a single employee can be assigned to it? There are dozens of volunteers working a full time job and contribute to Thunderbird in their free time. Half of them wouldn’t hesitate if they would get the chance to work for Mozilla, assigned to the Thunderbird project. At the end of the day it’s probably the only viable open source alternative of its proprietary counterpart, Microsoft Outlook.
I know Mozilla’s finances allow them to make and support some quite interesting projects, so why are we still hearing this ‘resources’ corporate talk? Firefox OS requires at least 50x the ‘resources‘ needed for Thunderbird, as an example. Thunderbird on the other hand is trusted by millions of users (yes, millions) for over a decade (yet we cannot say the same thing about Firefox OS). The trust alone Mozilla would get back by supporting Thunderbird is literally priceless. However, I’m deeply disappointed Mozilla still hasn’t changed their stance regarding this.
Disclaimer: Mozilla released security updates and provided the infrastructure for Thunderbird development, QA, support and documentation continuously after 2012. That is however not anymore the case (this is done 100% by volunteers right now).
Snowbird & Thunderden
It’s quite funny that Mozilla ‘let go‘ of Thunderbird in 2012 and not in 2013. It probably wouldn’t have happened in late 2013 after the Snowden leaks (at least I like to think so, no one knows). One would expect Mozilla to rethink the decision regarding Thunderbird, but almost 2 years have passed since the Snowden revelations, and there is still no sign of Mozilla changing their stance. A missed opportunity? I definitely believe so.
Thunderbird is one of the friendliest email clients for PGP encryption and with a similar Add-On ecosystem as Firefox, it offers endless customization possibilities. It is also the de facto email client for most Linux distros. Mozilla could occupy the whole email client space on all Linux operating systems with less ‘resources‘ (I love this word) than needed for most side projects Mozilla takes on.
The thing is, abandoning the Thunderbird project makes no sense neither community-wise, neither marketing or PR-wise. How can you keep an open web when you are not taking email into account, which is a critical part of internet traffic?
Well, let’s have a look at the Mozilla Manifesto.
Are we helping cater these 2 principles (among others) by ignoring Thunderbird? It seems not. This is not any longer about “picking our battles“, this is necessary.
Also, on a market share and user base perspective, it’s true that for the average Joe, web interfaces are simply too convenient to exchange with an email client, but when it comes to business or professionals who are serious about email, they want to have full control over latter, which only email clients offer to a full extent.
David Harrison wrote a great piece about reviving Thunderbird. Quoting him here about the importance of email clients like Thunderbird
“The cloudification of mail and calendar is just so useful and popular — how could anything turn it back?!
But then I remember what it’s like when an online service goes offline and you can’t get your provider to help out. I remember the NSA, and the risks associated with having my mail and calendar lying around on someone else’s servers.
I remember promises of backups being made, only to find that after a disaster, they turned out to not work”
I must repeat I really can’t get behind why Mozilla is neglecting Thunderbird. It makes no sense in whatsoever way. We need to reevaluate this.
What does the Bird say?
There has been some good progress from the community front of Thunderbird lately though. 22 active Thunderbird contributors gathered in November 2014 at the Mozilla Offices in Toronto for the Thunderbird Summit, discussing plans and the future of Thunderbird. Reading about this made me actually very happy and hopeful for Thunderbird’s future.
I mean look at this (one of the key points discussed at the Thunderbird Summit):
The Thunderbird active contributors are proud to be part of Mozilla, expect to remain part of Mozilla for the foreseeable future, and believe we have an important role to play in fulfilling the goals of the Mozilla Manifesto.
Reading this made me have mixed feelings. Firstly it made me proud of being a Mozillian and being on the same boat as these contributors who not only understand the Mozilla Manifesto, but breath and live it everyday (a lot of other Mozillians are in this category too of course).
Secondly, it made me incredibly sad that these efforts are not as appreciated as they should. It makes me slowly lose faith in how well Mozilla can keep its promise for an open web (in practice, not in theory). Yes, I said it, I’m deeply concerned about this. I am also convinced Thunderbird is essential in helping our mission to keep the web open.
Learning a lesson
To summarize, there are various reasons for Mozilla to readopt Thunderbird:
- It’s a “thank you” to all the supporters of the open web. It’s a sign that we still care. I know Mozilla has ambitious plans, but I don’t think we will be successful converting new people to open web supporters before taking care of our existing long time supporters. The thing is, Thunderbird is the best present you could give them.
- With a lot of controversies happening in the last year (starting with Brendan Eich leaving), Mozilla has went through quite some battles. I’m afraid we have lost some credibility by making decisions which aren’t ideal for an open web, decisions one would expect from commercial companies like Google, Microsoft or Apple. Readopting Thunderbird would boost our credibility and show that we are not only about the browsers wars, but about the open web in general.
- Marketing and PR-wise this is a much wiser decision than pouring money into marketing efforts. Just imagine how many bloggers would talk about the news. This would be huge engagement for us. It also shows that we are reflective of our past and analyze each of our steps carefully (we are already doing this with Firefox OS and its new strategy; Thunderbird deserves this too).
- We would be able to be the default email client for the whole Linux environment. We kind of already are, but there is so much space we can improve here if we do a tidier job.
- We created Firefox with the intention to break Internet Explorer’s browser monopoly; why won’t we do it with Outlook? Thunderbird is a very strong contendant and with some improvements it could easily replace Microsoft Outlook and other email clients. There is a lot of ground to gain here.
- It’s a necessary tool to advocate the mainstream use of privacy protective measurements and encryption in a post-Snowden era.
- Without Thunderbird, we are unable to fulfill our Manifesto to its full extent. It’s not an optionality.
It’s no secret that the Thunderbird project is desperately looking for at least one employee to help Thunderbird going into the right direction. I am very positive that Mozilla is able to cater these needs, for its own best, by readopting Thunderbird. But employees (or the lack thereof) isn”t the only problem. A lot of Thunderbird contributors have not received support (or very little) from Mozilla in the past. We need to reactivate the community and make Thunderbird again inclusive of the Mozilla family. It would enforce efforts exponentially because contributors will actually notice that someone out there cares.
As of now, I’ve been traveling the Mozilla journey for 2.5 years and don’t plan to end it any time soon. Among others, I have been involved in various local communities, advocated open design within the Mozilla Corporation and helped the Mozilla Reps program to cultivate more transparency. Also, lately, I was asked to design a new Thunderbird Logo for the 38 major release. However it seems it won’t see the light of the day, due to doubts about the branding efforts. It was still a great experience designing it.
I believe that if there is a problem, there also needs to be a solution. While I have identified a problem, I didn’t give a solution yet (only hinting at it).
While this is a problem a lot of us make when we want to address something, I wish to avoid this and offer my full support and commitment to help Thunderbird be as much as part of Mozilla as Firefox is. Please reach out to me so we can start talking about this in the open. I created an etherpad for this where we can gather thoughts. Every input is appreciated here.
Thunderbird needs Mozilla, but also vice-versa. We just don’t know it yet.