David Ascher, head of Mozilla’s messaging subsidiary, has posted an outline of the roadmap for Thunderbird 3 signaling the start of a new stage in Thunderbird’s development which has lacked a clear plan of action since Thunderbird 2 release last year.
Increasing Thunderbird already large user base will become a priority, as a way to maximize its impact. As a new Mozilla subsidiary it also has the need to achieve financial sustainability and a larger user base would definitely help.
One approach will be adding so much requested calendaring functions to Thunderbird, making it a real competitor for personal information managers, mainly Microsoft Outlook. This means Thunderbird will bundle Lightning, a mega-extension that embeds Sunbird’s calendaring functions. It is not clear if a Lightning-less version will be made available.
Another area is better search capabilities to at least match Gmail and Yahoo! Mail accuracy. A more powerful interface to give extension developers more control and less limitations on what they can do. This already started last November with the announcement of STEEL, which aims to provide an easier interface for developers in the same way FUEL does for Firefox 3.
Overall user experience will be enhanced, for example with message tabs, to avoid the clutter when opening several messages in different windows at the same time. This improvement is already in place in Thunderbird developers releases and can be seen in Spicebird and the modern version of Yahoo! Mail.
In the back-end, they will aim to get rid of some obsolete data formats like Mork and RDF and replace them for easier to maintain data storage like SQLite-based MozStorage (coming with Firefox 3) which provides more powerful access mechanisms and is easier to maintain.
David also provided a rough schedule: first alphas this quarter, beta in the second, more betas now with integrated calendaring in the third and final release by year’s end. It seems that it will have to focus in the precise points mentioned here to stay within this very aggressive schedule.
But I think it is very necessary to have a Thunderbird release this year if only to prove the project is alive and kicking and Mozilla is pretty serious about messaging. Nothing talks better than results.
Thunderbird will also face competition from Spicebird, a project that has already succeeded in merging Thunderbird and Lightning and even XMPP based instant messaging. Could Mozilla hire the whole Synovel team? It would be a great boost in line with the recent head hunting Mozilla went on Humanized.
There’s also the never-heard-about-again topic of bundling Thunderbird and Lightning with OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice.org still lacks a PIM which the new Thunderbird could deliver, while benefitting from OOo greater business appeal as a Microsoft Office alternative.