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Open source Thunderbird email client looks for new nest


It’s no secret that Mozilla Corp., the company behind Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird, and other open-source Internet programs, has made Firefox its No. 1 priority.

Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker is now admitting that the popular email client Thunderbird has taken second place, and she’s now looking beyond Mozilla to find another way to advance the program.

In a recent blog, Baker starts with a mea culpa.”Mozilla has been supporting Thunderbird as a product since the beginning of the [Mozilla] Foundation. The result is a good, solid product that provides an open alternative for desktop mail. However, the Thunderbird effort is dwarfed by the enormous energy and community focused on the Web, Firefox and the ecosystem around it. As a result, Mozilla doesn’t focus on Thunderbird as much as we do browsing and Firefox and we don’t expect this to change in the foreseeable future.”

The solution? “We have concluded that we should find a new, separate organizational setting for Thunderbird; one that allows the Thunderbird community to determine its own destiny,” said Baker.

Baker and the Mozilla Corp., however, aren’t sure how they should go about this. “Mozilla is exploring the options for an organization specifically focused on serving Thunderbird users. A separate organization focused on Thunderbird will both be able to move independently and will need to do so to deepen community and user involvement. We’re not yet sure what this organization will look like. We’ve thought about a few different options. I’ve described them below. If you’ve got a different idea please let us know.”

The options are: “Create a new non-profit organization analogous to the Mozilla Foundation — a Thunderbird foundation. If it turns out Thunderbird generates a revenue model from the product as Firefox does, then a Thunderbird foundation could follow the Mozilla Foundation model and create a subsidiary.”

The second option would be to “Create a new subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation for Thunderbird. This has less overhead, although it still requires a new company that serves the mission of the Mozilla Foundation,” said Baker. Since Mozilla doesn’t have the time or resources to devote to Thunderbird now, it’s not clear how, except in name, this would be different from the current situation.

Option three would be to release Thunderbird as a community project much like SeaMonkey, an all-in-one Internet application that follows in the footsteps of the original Mozilla plans.

In this scenario, Baker sees a small independent services and consulting company being “formed by the Thunderbird developers to continue development and care for Thunderbird users. Many open-source projects use this model; it could be simpler and more effective than a Mozilla Foundation subsidiary. However, creating this as a nonprofit would be extremely difficult. Running a services company as an independent taxable company is the simplest operational answer. We would need to figure out how such a company relates to the Thunderbird product itself. What’s the best way for such a company to release a product? How does that relate to the community project that stays within Mozilla?”

These are all good questions, and Mozilla doesn’t pretend to have the answers. “We don’t know the best answer yet,” said Baker. “And we don’t expect to without a broad public discussion and involvement, which we hope this message will trigger. Today someone suggested to me that perhaps there is another foundation that might be a good home for Thunderbird. I hadn’t thought of this; it’s a creative idea.”

Baker also hints that Mozilla may want to look at a different approach towards email than the traditional PC-based email client represented by Thunderbird. “We would also like to find contributors committed to creating and implementing a new vision of mail. We would like to have a road map that brings wild innovation, increasing richness and fundamental improvements to mail. And equally importantly, we would like to find people with relevant expertise who would join with Mozilla to make something happen.”

“If we can see a path to an innovative mail initiative in addition to supporting existing Thunderbird users, then we are interested in doing so. If we find the best way to improve mail is incremental development of Thunderbird as already planned, then we’ve learned something extremely valuable as well,” said Baker.

Baker then invited comments on the questions she raises either as responses to his blog entry or on the new MailNews: Future of Mail Mozilla Wiki page.

Reactions to these proposals have been mixed. At this point, there seems to be no agreement on which option, if any, should be followed.

Some users are also dismissing the idea of wasting any time or resources on a PC-based email client. Others passionately defend the continuation of Thunderbird. Perhaps the most common theme in the replies has been that Mozilla Corp. is paying too much attention to its bottom line and not enough to the free software goals of the Mozilla Foundation.

A version of this story was published in DesktopLinux.

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