Life-support, Community and Thunderbird

This blog post will be somewhat peculiar. It could well be a rant, based on informations I perceive and a few facts as well; and it may ruffle some feathers too (standard terms apply; this post reflects my personal thoughts and not the ones of the Document Foundation, nor my employer’s, not even the ones of my grand mother may she rest in peace); but first and foremost, this post is about what I think the problem with Mozilla Thunderbird is and the solutions I’m suggesting. Facts or other data may prove me wrong and I will gladly stand corrected in that case. But for the moment, they don’t, so let’s start.

It is not my first post about Mozilla, and as readers know I’m not keen on using Thunderbird as a client: I’m regularly singing the praises of Claws-Mail, Gnome Evolution, and Emacs tools such as mu4e. I find Thunderbird to be rather slow and not innovative. I find its mbox implementation to be problematic (with my inboxes, at least), its search capabilities rather suboptimal and its ideas about tabs verging on the imbecile. But that’s just me, the user. And as a user, I’ve moved on to other email clients. I do not forget about Thunderbird’s huge userbase, and its Free Software nature. Because of this Thunderbird is an important piece of software.

In 2012, Mozilla announced that they were putting Thunderbird in some sort of comatose state, only supplying what was left of the expected features updates and ensuring for the foreseeable future only security patches. Mozilla claimed it was inviting the community to seize this opportunity and develop for Thunderbird, instead of Mozilla paying people to do so. In other words, Mozilla was dumping Thunderbird, but the way it was doing it ended up having some rather unfortunate outcome:

  • Mozilla tried to sugarcoat the announcement, or to at least make some sort of ordered retreat. But there does not seem to have been any real effort to provide simple tools for the community to organize. Check the Internet today, check the Mozilla websites. It is rather hard to get anything technical about Thunderbird before reaching documentation or the Thunderbird mailing lists. To someone who does not keep these online resources as bookmarks, it takes anywhere between 5 to 10 successive clicks on pages to reach the first real community communication channel (aside IRC perhaps). The result is that since 2012 only Mozilla insiders would know what was going on with Thunderbird and its future, and I know a few long time community members who are not even able to point to any place where the Thunderbird community dwells. Shortly put: whatever community of developers and contributors Thunderbird has, it took time to organize as any focal point on the web was invisible.
  • Mozilla still making releases of Thunderbird is a good thing. I would never say that they should have stopped releasing it. But releasing Thunderbird without taking some actions to “put things on the table”, meaning without clearly explaining what resources are missing, what technical problems need to be tackled is not going to attract any contributors.
  • With no clear leadership and no real calendar, people, as well as businesses and governments kept using Thunderbird but never investing into it. And if they ever intended to do it, no one could probably ever find the point of contact. Unless the sole point of contact was Mozilla itself. This approach is self-defeating if you pretend to let the community take control of the Thunderbird project.

Fast forward to 2015. Glyn Moody publishes in early March an article about “Mozilla’s really important news: Thunderbird lives“.  I’m an avid reader of Glyn’s articles, but I disagree with him on Thunderbird. First, Thunderbird having a healthy rate of downloads does not imply the project is growing. I can tell of a few software projects that own their download rates only to their trademarks, not to their active development. image-of-mozilla-thunderbird-logo5141-580x358

Second, the article digresses on the use of GPG and the problems caused by Enigmail. That misses the point (and I won’t go into the GPG topic here): The few contributors around Thunderbird seem to have convinced Mozilla to dedicate some resources on Thunderbird; and they have some outstanding tasks, some of them being quite interesting, like supporting MailDir some others being calendar packaging. I do not want to berate them, but if we believe Thunderbird is our only way out of vendor lock-in on groupware, this is a rather sad situation we’re having here. I do not care about roadmap or grandiose plans of world domination. I want to see a code repository, docs, a few mailing lists (including the one for user support) and perhaps a wiki. Right now I hardly see anything like that: the repository is still in listed as Mozilla “community code”, a creative way to call second-class citizens at Mozilla. I see a small dedicated team of contributors, very few of them being actual developers. There’s a daunting amount of work cut out for them; and I do wish them success. Plenty of it. Meanwhile…

… Wouldn’t it be useful to talk about alternatives? What about Kontact, which is multi-platform? Or funding substantial improvements on the Windows port of Claws? Or Evolution? While we’re pondering on the future of a close to zombified – yet not dead Thunderbird, we’re not helping the others. And we badly need them.

But wait, there’s more. If Mozilla is really backpedaling on dumping Thunderbird, it needs to do much more than this timid come-back. It needs to do something about Groupware. It needs to port Thunderbird (or develop an email client) for Android. Or Firefox OS. In comparison of the kind of investments Mozilla does in other areas (Firefox OS, Webmaker…) Thunderbird cannot possibly be that demanding. Instead of witnessing this -or am I too impatient?- we still have to deal with the constant half-hearted, nose-blocked attempt at maintaining Thunderbird. I wish we could go beyond this. I wish Mozilla could be clearer. Very few FOSS projects have the knowledge and expertise to derive a product out of their code: Mozilla did this Firefox, and is doing it with Firefox OS, both of them brilliantly. Why it won’t do this with Thunderbird is mind-boggling.  But enough wasting everybody’s time with my rant: I’ll go back tinkering with my mails on Emacs.

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