A TALE OF TWO TOOLS

A TALE OF TWO TOOLS

Article from Issue 183/2016
Author(s):

One interesting item in the chat rooms these days is Mozilla's announcement that it plans to end its involvement with the famous Mozilla Thunderbird mail client. Firefox and Thunderbird used to be twins – two hot, new built-for-the-future desktop tools rising from the ashes of the old Mozilla browser community, which itself had risen from the ashes of a pioneering Internet company known as Netscape. The Firefox web browser and Thunderbird mail client saw their first major releases within a month of each other back in 2004, and both embodied the vision of a sleek, sensible, single-purpose tool to replace the dinosaurs of an earlier era.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

One interesting item in the chat rooms these days is Mozilla's announcement that it plans to end its involvement with the famous Mozilla Thunderbird mail client [1]. Firefox and Thunderbird used to be twins – two hot, new built-for-the-future desktop tools rising from the ashes of the old Mozilla browser community, which itself had risen from the ashes of a pioneering Internet company known as Netscape. The Firefox web browser and Thunderbird mail client saw their first major releases within a month of each other back in 2004, and both embodied the vision of a sleek, sensible, single-purpose tool to replace the dinosaurs of an earlier era.

Firefox rode that vision to glory, challenging Microsoft's Internet Explorer for browser dominance in what was sweet revenge for the Netscape faithful. The Firefox browser lost a bit of its fire with the rise of the Google's Chrome browser, but it remains a popular option for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows users around the world. Thunderbird, however, flew to a different mountain. The Thunderbird mail client is still a top choice in many open source circles, but the rest of the world seems to have moved on.

The rise of mobile devices and cloud computing has left conventional desktop mail clients like Thunderbird to drift. According to the Email Client Marketshare website [2], 85% of the marketshare for mail clients belongs to mega-companies Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Another leading option, Yahoo! Mail, is a cloud-based webmail option. Thunderbird, weighing in at 10th place in market share, is actually the highest ranking third-party, conventional desktop mail reader on the list, but its market share is down to around 1%.

The appeal of reading web-based mail on any desktop or any mobile device leads to overwhelming popularity for the Apple, Google, and Microsoft products, and even in the business environment, more sophisticated groupware tools now integrate mail with other forms of collaboration.

So desktop email clients aren't as important as they used to be. Does that really mean Thunderbird (the 10th most popular email client) has no place in the portfolio? According to Mozilla Foundation Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker, "Many inside 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."

Baker, and others in the Mozilla community, refer to the cost of Thunderbird as a "tax" upon Mozilla resources. It seems fair to ask, what exactly is getting taxed in order to pay that tax to Thunderbird? Look a little closer, and you'll see that Firefox is big, big money. Mozilla used to get millions of dollars per year from Google for making Google the default search engine, and they signed a big new contract with Yahoo! for US search a year ago. So the twins have gotten a bit asymmetric, with Firefox operating as a multi-million dollar business and Thunderbird as a steady, but not-so-lucrative basic open source development project.

What corporation wouldn't want to get rid of the non-remunerative stuff to focus on the ultra-remunerative stuff? But then, Mozilla Foundation isn't supposed to be a corporation, or at least, part of it isn't. Actually, the for-profit Mozilla Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, which means the organization has a kind of double identity.

I'm willing to admit that desktop email clients are probably not the future of the Internet, but I wonder about the argument that an open source organization as big and well heeled as Mozilla Foundation should abandon all efforts that aren't slated to have an "industry-wide impact." The FOSS world supports thousands of open source projects that have no potential to overturn the existing order but exist simply because they play a vital role within the open source ecosystem.

The good news is that Mozilla seems committed to finding a good home for the Thunderbird project. Baker writes that she and other Mozilla execs "… want to make sure that Thunderbird has the right kind of legal and financial home, one that will help the community thrive." A smooth transition would be best for all parties. One possible candidate is the Apache Foundation, which has taken in other lost projects in the past. An Apache scenario might work well for everyone, but if it happens, I probably won't be the only one to wonder, how come Apache can afford to support Thunderbird but Mozilla can't?

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Infos

  1. Mitchell Baker on Thunderbird Future: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/mozilla.governance/kAyVlhfEcXg
  2. Email Client Market Share: https://emailclientmarketshare.com/

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