Recently the Mozilla Foundation announced a new orientation for their email client, Thunderbird. It caused quite a bit of discussion, and we, at the Document Foundation, received quite a lot of public and private feedback on this mostly in the form of: “Now that Mozilla is getting rid of Thunderbird, The Document Foundation should take on its maintenance and development”. Much of this crazy rumor has ended being disproved by Mozilla itself and what seems to be going on is that Mozilla will in fact enable a real community-led development style on Thunderbird (contrary to the development model of Firefox) but has to intention of dumping it anywhere. That didn’t stop the rumor to spread anyway and this article by Brian Profitt caught my eye: “Will Open Source Office Suites go the way of Thunderbird?”.
Brian seems to push the case that Open Source office suites, just like email clients in general are tools that are slowly yet surely becoming extinct and obsolete. Email clients do not innovate anymore, he argues, and suites like Libreoffice lack the innovation and the presence the upcoming Microsoft Office 2013 has. I think that Brian is mixing up several trends and concepts here, although his article is well worth a read.
In the case of LibreOffice, we have announced that porting to Android and iOS is currently on the way, and so is the LibreOffice on Line project. What’s really needed to make these two projects take off is consistent funding that would speed up their development pace. That is a well-known issue, not just for the Document Foundation but for Free and Open Source software in general. We may conclude that in specific instance, that lack of funding or resources slow down the pace of innovation, but it does not make Free and Open Source software, and particularly office suites or email clients obsolete. In fact, software obsolescence is not so much the lack of features (LibreOffice has plenty of them no one ever uses) as the inability to go along and adapt to the current paradigm ruling or affecting that part of software development and usage. I have heard many people explaining that email clients are dead, because webmail, from GMail to RoundCube offers just about the same features than email clients. While it is partially true, there are at least two things that webmail does not do: It does not save and archive your inbox on your own hard drive and more often than not, it does not offer the ability for convergence. By convergence I mean the ability to become a hub for online communications: not just your email, but your microblogging stream(s), instant messaging services, document sharing and groupware. Of course, a well polished, html5 webmail service might offer just that. But webmail, unless you host it yourself on your server (tadaa, you could host that on your own computer) is essentially software as a service, and service is a paradigm that affects email clients (and office suites) but that does not alter their “survival” chances. It is in fact a matter of convenience, yet convenience is fundamentally a matter of perception. IT is in constant evolution, and each time we hit a new paradigm we get something out of it: simple users, corporate customers, developers, vendors, etc. So to give but one example, when I started browsing the Internet, a search engine called Alta Vista was all the rage of the day. Google did not exist, Yahoo was the place to be, and Facebook was not even a spark in the imagination of Mark Zuckerberg. At that time, which really was around 1999, the debate between the proponents of webmail vs. the proponents of email clients was already ongoing, but the mail client was definitely seen as the serious option. Because of the poor bandwidth of those days, a mail client was seen as a more practical way to handle email, except for people who did not use email that much. You could of course et your own mail server yourself just like today. But while online services were important even at that time there was the notion that somehow these were all replaceable. To suggest that all your email can be kept by Gmail is true, but what would happen if your Gmail account gets suspended ?(hint: things get ugly past that point).
What email clients need to be, or to become again, is the hub for communications convergence whatever your device can be (workstation, tablet, phone…), and just in the same way, office suites, and especially LibreOffice, needs to become your creative hub whatever your device can be, while a modern-day browser can naturally be the tool you spend hours on daily. Software obsolescence does happen the way dinosaurs went extinct: the paradigm changed somehow. But what the paradigm really is makes all the difference. Cloud based services do not, I think, mean the disappearance of all software on a desktop and the booming of lightweight apps on your phone. At least if that’s the general impression , that’s because people usually only see one part of the picture: the big picture is something many of them miss. In an industry supposedly “changed for ever” by cloud services most of the people still access their email clients and have to work on an attachment that’s a document, a spreadsheet or a presentation, and in the very same industry, what seems to matter more and more is what you make of the data, all the public data that’s collected by governments and large organizations; and ultimately, what goes on Facebook and how that’s shared – and analyzed- by whom and for whom will matter much more than today. That day, open source office suites, and email clients, will still be alive and kicking.