(NB: the opinions expressed in this post are entirely mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the Document Foundation.)
A few days ago Mozilla published a study by Simon Phipps about the possible choices of entities that could host the Thunderbird project. The finalists, for the lack of a better word, were the Software Freedom Conservancy, the Mozilla Foundation (working on different terms with the Thunderbird project) and the Document Foundation.
I’m not going to write about which one I think is the best for the Thunderbird project for two reasons: I think the question itself is quite complex and I do not claim to know the Thunderbird community and project that well. That being said, each possible choice seems very interesting and exciting for Thunderbird in my view.
Should the Document Foundation be considered as the final choice for Thunderbird, here’s my personal opinion on what challenges and opportunities await the Thunderbird project.
Let the contributors speak first
It sounds either like something obvious or someting that should have been already asked. To my knowledge, however, nobody has asked the community of contributors of Thunderbird if they have a clear opinion on the path to a (brighter) future. There’s more. Whatever the final choice of entity that will be made, Thunderbird should actually agree to that choice. And at least in the case of the Document Foundation, I believe it would only be logical that the members of the Document Foundation decide on whether it is a good idea for themselves.
One implied matter here is that the Thunderbird project should have a precise idea on who his actual contributors are, and from that data extract some notion on who can work on what, for how long and with what capability. What I’m trying to suggest here is that it is important to know where you’re starting from so that you can also tell what’s the more urgent tasks, technical or logistical.
Show me the code
When the LibreOffice project and the Document Foundation were started, we made sure code was available for download since the very first day. The reason we did this was twofold. We wanted to show we were credible from day one and we wanted to attract developers. Code is a great way to meet these two requirements: it reassures people and show potential developers you’re not all talk; in fact, you have something to show and potential itches to scratch. I do not suggest the Thunderbird project should have a fresh beta from day one. It should however have a public repository that shows some activity. Even better, a list of “low-hanging fruits”, issues or bugs that are relatively easy and fun to tackle would be a great way to attract developers.
The master of your ship
In the case of the Document Foundation, and to the best of my knowledge, the Thunderbird project will benefit from several key advantages: resources (both logistical and to some degree, financial), a very large autonomy (if not downright independence) and the ability and support to grow as a project and a community. What the Document Foundation will not provide, should it become the final choice of the Mozilla foundation as the next home for Thunderbird is an important point I fear many people have overlooked or have not understood.
- The Document Foundation has no developers to offer, no contributor to be produced by magical means. Being a project of the Document Foundation allows you to be part of it as individual contributors and to set your project free. But neither money, nor code will start to rain on Thunderbird as a result. Signing up with the Document Foundation implies the Thunderbird project realizes hard work lies ahead.
- The developers of the LibreOffce and the Document Liberation projects will not all of a sudden show up, fix your small XPCOM and XUL inconveniences and work on the remaining tasks for the project. The Thunderbird project, hopefully gaining developers in the transition towards the Document Foundation, will have to deal with its own technical challenges and opportunities on its own.
- The Document Foundation will not dictate the roadmap and technological options for Thunderbird. Of course, I’m rather confident several LibreOffice developers can think of possible opportunities for technical cooperation and even some sort of loose integration between LibreOffice and Thunderbird. But that’s the extent of it: if there are enough developers interested from both sides, things will start happening. If not… it won’t happen, and nobody should feel sorry about it.
If you have been reading this post until this very point you may be wondering whether I would actually like to see Thunderbird join the Document Foundation. Of course I would be very happy to see Thunderbird join us and transform itself into a strong, community-led project that will put my previous posts about why I don’t like to use it to rest and to shame. But I also happen to think that it is crucially important for everyone involved (from Thunderbird to the Document Foundation to the Thunderbird users themselves) to get it right from the start. The best home for Thunderbird is the one that will let it grow into a strong community of contributors. In order to do that the most important part does not come with the host structure but from within Thunderbird itself. I strongly believe that the Document Foundation is ideally positioned to be that home. Once the contributors are active, the technical debt is being effectively addressed, then I am confident that the much awaited synergies will start to show: document management, email editors and outliners, common packaging, LibreOffice OnLine and even an online Thunderbird continuum with their desktop versions, Android ports…
Seriously, the road ahead is bright and clear. But until we reach that point, there are some real challenges to overcome. I wish the best to Thunderbird, sincerely, whatever will be the decision of Mozilla.