Mozilla looking at Thunderbird spin off options

Mozilla CEO, Mitchell Baker has announced the Mozilla Foundation is looking for options on how to give Thunderbird as a project, the autonomy and focus it needs to develop to its full potential.

“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.”, reads Mitchell’s post.

Options include creating an independent Thunderbird Foundation, which would involve a very significant effort and cost. Another option is to create a subsidiary but would more likely result in the current situation. The third option is to spin a community project similar to SeaMonkey with infrastructure support provided by Mozilla. Yet another option is to look for a third party project that could adopt Thunderbird.

My first reaction is surprise. It is pretty obvious that Firefox is the focus of most resources available at the Mozilla Foundation/Corporation. Firefox is the most important source of revenue for the Mozilla entities but most importantly an extremely effective way to follow its principles and achieve its goals of building and enabling open source technologies, consumer products, and economic models for public value. Regarding the web.

But according to the Mozilla Manifesto, Mozilla is about all that for the Internet and not just the web. Mozilla could be about chat, VoIP, video conference, peer to peer and other Internet enabled technologies. Not all of them or at least not all of them at the same time, but being solidly established in the email segment I don’t see why it should quit.

I believe the purpose of spinning off Thunderbird (and Calendar as well I guess) is more about focusing on Firefox than empowering Thunderbird as a project. And this is the part that puzzles me as voluntarily limiting its scope contradicts the Mozilla Manifesto.

I could understand if a lack of funding could be threatening the whole project. Then dropping some products would make sense in order to save Mozilla as an organization. But it doesn’t seem to be the case neither in the present nor in the foreseeable future.

However it doesn’t seem to be about dropping email, just Thunderbird.

“We would also like to find contributors committed to creating and implementing a new vision of mail. We would like to have a roadmap that brings wild innovation, increasing richness and fundamental improvements to mail.”, reads another part of the post.

I can relate to such statement. As millions of users I am locked in Outlook at work. But for me, email equals the web: RocketMail, Yahoo! Mail, self-hosted SquirrelMail, back to Yahoo! Mail and since about a couple of years ago Gmail. I don’t know what I’ll be using in a couple of years but my safest bet would be some other web mail application and not a desktop email client. And I would like a tighter integration between my browser, Firefox, and my web mail, Gmail. There are enough extensions to make this integration a reality today: say Gmail Notifier and Webmail Compose. But there are millions of users in the same situation and enough to make it desirable to have this feature integrated with my browser.

I am still not sure if currently in development protocol web handling will be the answer to at least part of what I expect but hopefully users will be able to set a custom URL to take care of mailto: links.

Moving forward, a totally different system could replace email and perhaps this is what Mitchell’s post suggests. After all email has proved to be an inefficient system and mentioning all its weaknesses would be a long task. A recent article highlighted how the youngest Internet users rely on social networks’ (like Pownce, Facebook and MySpace) messaging systems to stay connected rather than email. I’m inclined to believe messaging will evolve into some kind of standardization of message sharing instead of delivery.

But email desktop clients are and will be part of the Internet landscape in the next few years. At least thanks to usual business shyness. So I believe Thunderbird (and Sunbird and Lightning which would more likely follow) should stay at home.

Or the Mozilla Manifesto updated to reflect a web only scope.

UPDATE: Scott McGregor, Thunderbird Lead Engineer, has posted his views on the future of Thunderbird.
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