Mozilla Scaling Back Thunderbird Development Shouldn’t Mean Not Innovating in Messaging

To start with, I feel compelled to directly address a lot of the laughable reading of tea leaves I have seen since the story broke that Mozilla is scaling back development on Thunderbird late yesterday.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the first declarations of the demise of Thurderbird I saw came from TechCrunch, a site I associate with hyperbole and the worst sort of journalistic pot-stirring in the tech news sphere. Mitchell Baker’s announcement on her blog bears much closer reading, though. I think saying that the multi-platform, open source messaging client is being put on life support is overstating things. That would be like saying a long term support release of Ubuntu is the same as life support.

It is useful to bear Thunderbird’s storied past in mind when thinking about this most recent turn. Thunderbird has never been as actively developed or supported as Firefox. I still remember the very long and frustrating doldrum that was version 2. Then suddenly there seemed to be enough interest and will to try to couple it to Firefox’s recently re-invigorate development cadence. From Thunderbird 3 through the present saw a rewarding surge forward for long time users and supporters, like myself.

I tend to interpret Baker’s announcement that Mozilla is shifting away development resources as a return to that sargasso of slow development in which Thunderbird really has spent most of its time anyway. This time, there is the possibility the community will take up her invitation, to pick up the banner and move the state of the mail client forward independently. There is some cause to hope; I cite how LibreOffice rose from the ashes of the fork that birthed it, before which there was similar hand wringing about the slow death of OpenOffice.

I want to emphasize one key point in Baker’s post before I go on. Mozilla is still supporting Thunderbird, just not undertaking any new feature development. They are committed to releasing security updates. For the time being, Thunderbird is still a viable choice for those who use desktop messaging clients, like myself and even Baker herself.

I want to point out for Linux users there are a bevy of other options from mutt to Evolution and Kmail. I suspect though that each of these may be found lacking in some ways, not because of a short fall in the developers’ attention to them. I worry that there is a common cause for lack luster progress, one that arises from certain user expectations. I think we all know what may be robbing all desktop email efforts of oxygen: Gmail.

Gmail wasn’t the first webmail solution, nor is it the only one. We even have open source options, like SOGo, for those that want to combine the convenience of a web based solution with owning their own mail server. I don’t even think it is the features of Gmail that are responsible for its overpowering draw. Just pay attention every time there is a change in features or new ones launched. There is plenty of growsing and often a battery of extensions and GreaseMonkey scripts to restore older functionality.

For me there is a persisent lack in Gmail that finally drove me away for good, no reliable way to support encrypted correspondence. I don’t see that changing any time soon given Google’s focus on organizational gewgaws like priority mail.

I think it is the incredible ease of setup and use that feeds Gmail’s success at the expense of seemingly everything else. I honestly think Mozilla should address that far more directly and if they are unwilling to innovate on top of Thunderbird, perhaps it is time for them to create an open source alternative to Gmail. They have toyed with various efforts around open web applications. Above all they are committed to their role in ensuring an open Internet not through market dominance but in always ensuring that users have a choice.

If Thunderbird isn’t the choice users want, I submit Mozilla should marshal their experiences with efforts like Sync, Raindrop and Thunderbird to produce their own webmail service. I know they will never be able to scale to the size of Gmail but that isn’t the point. Creating a compelling, competitive webmail offering that expresses Mozilla’s commitment to user sovereignty, security and open standards would be worth whatever resources the plucky non-profit can spare and, I suspect, would draw far more outside support and interest if they chose to take the initiative, meeting the market dominant player head on just as Firefox continues to do.

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