Mozilla Open Source

The Future Of Thunderbird

Mitchell today announced that the Mozilla Foundation is now looking for a new home for Thunderbird since it doesn’t directly meet the mission of the foundation, which is putting most of it’s efforts into Firefox. Three options have been initially proposed (though there seems to be room for more options).

Before I go through them, and sprinkle in my $0.02, I’d like to inform the less technical readers, and remind the more technical ones that whatever entity cares for Thunderbird in the future will always be a conjoined twin of the Mozilla Foundation. The products share too much of the same code to be autonomous due to their history. A true separation just couldn’t happen without a 100% rewrite or forking the code, which almost definitely wouldn’t be practical. Therefore, it will always be critical for both product teams to interact with each other regarding things like XULRunner, XPCOM, Gecko, XUL, etc.

I should however point out that Thunderbird isn’t completely irrelevant in the “open web as the platform”. As Matt Mullenweg blogged a while back “Email is the universal API”. He’s right. There are very few services you can sign up for without an email address. There are very few things that haven’t been adapted to work via email. Its openness is what’s also allowing so much spam to plague it. Ultimately solutions will need to be adopted to close these holes (replace SMTP with something more secure?). That’s when the “Open Email as a platform” crusade begins.

Email has historically been tied to the web. So much so Senator Ted Stevens famously said before the senate “an Internet [sic] was sent by my staff”, not realizing he really meant email.

What was the biggest Web 2.0 launch? Likely Gmail. People live off of email.

Anyway… with that in mind, here are the options Mitchell proposes:

Option 1. Create a new non-profit organization analogous to the Mozilla Foundation – a Thunderbird foundation. If it turns out Thunderbird generates a revenue model from the product as Firefox does, then a Thunderbird foundation could follow the Mozilla Foundation model and create a subsidiary.

This sounds like a good idea on the surface, but also has a lot of complexity. Unless it has enough backing for continual support, it may end up eating more resources than it creates. Creating a non-profit isn’t easy. Maintaining it costs money, this means spinning up things like donation solicitations, product sales (Mozilla Store), support contracts, etc. etc. That’s a lot of administrative overhead. This guarantees independence, but doesn’t guarantee more resources, since the foundation itself could be a heavy consumer itself.

Option 2. Create a new subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation for Thunderbird. This has less overhead, although it still requires a new company that serves the mission of the Mozilla Foundation. In this case the Mozilla Foundation board and personnel would remain involved in Thunderbird. Thunderbird would continue to need to be balanced and prioritized with Mozilla’s focus on delivering the web through Firefox, its ecosystem and the Open Web as the platform. The Thunderbird effort may therefore still end up with less focus and less flexibility.

This is an even more interesting idea. Since we are talking about conjoined twins, why not let them live together, but give them semi-autonomous organizational structures. The downside here is obviously Thunderbird always lives in the shadows of Firefox. The upside is that it gains the stability the Mozilla Foundation can provide, and can continue to live in close harmony with it’s sibling Firefox.

Option 3. Thunderbird is released as a community project much like SeaMonkey, and a small independent services and consulting company is formed by the Thunderbird developers to continue development and care for Thunderbird users. Many open source projects use this model, it could be simpler and more effective than a Mozilla Foundation subsidiary. However, creating this as a non-profit would be extremely difficult. Running a services company as an independent taxable company is the simplest operational answer. We would need to figure out how such a company relates to the Thunderbird product itself. What’s the best way for such a company to release a product? How does that relate to the community project that stays within Mozilla?

This is the most complicated from a community perspective. It’s somewhat vague in structure and goal. It’s also somewhat of a hybrid. It would still possibly involve some sort of subsidiary, yet keep it as a project.

I think I’m ultimately a fan of option 3 and variants of it. I think the first option is extremely difficult to successfully pull off, and may strain the relationship between products when they would really benefit most from being as close as possible and leveraging each others work. Considering the code shared between them, it would be counteractive to make the split too deep. Option 2 doesn’t seem to solve the problem that brought us here, but it may be a safer bet than option 1, hence worth considering. Option 3 seems to facilitate this.

Though note I said variant. My personal belief is that it would make the most sense for the Mozilla Foundation to have partial (or full) ownership in whatever organization is created. This would ensure that the mission statement and core beliefs don’t deviate from their core meaning, but are still customized for the respective markets. With partial ownership it would take some of the load off of the Mozilla Foundation. But who could be a suitable partner? In theory anyone from the Apache Foundation to even someone like Canonical (of Ubuntu fame).

Then there are the more radical ideas, such as starting a new subsidiary with OSAF to join efforts and bring some of the innovation and efforts behind Chandler to the mature and stable framework that Mozilla has to offer. I think in the long run it would be an advantage to both efforts, though a long road to get there. Thunderbird is already headed in the information management direction with the creation of the Lightning project. In my opinion this has potential to be the best, but least likely combination. Chandler is a very interesting product with a lot of potential, though not nearly as complete and refined as Thunderbird has become after several years of development and use. I should note there is a history between OSAF and Mozilla largely through Mitch Kapor and Mitchell Baker.

That said, there’s a lot of possibilities for the future of Thunderbird. It will be interesting to see the wider community reaction, and the decisions that follow. Scott MacGregor (who has a blog now) already posted his comments.

These are exciting times. I’ll follow up at some point with more. I put this post together on somewhat short notice, so pardon the rambling.

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