Thunderbird’s Future

Thunderbird is not dying. Great work has already taken place by some talented developers. Need proof? Check it out (though take note it’s a beta and shouldn’t be used in a production environment, yada, yada yada). That said, it been a long road to 3.0 but progress is being made.

You can also take a look at Postbox (run by some ex-mozilla folks), based the same core code with some pretty innovative features.

Microsoft’s Open Source Decoy

So Microsoft will open up with information on many protocols/formats, and provide a “covenant” not to sue open source developers. Note the exception. Microsoft reserves the right to sue companies who commercially distribute such implementations. They need to get a license. As Microsoft put it in their principles:

Open Source Compatibility. Microsoft will covenant not to sue open source developers for development and non-commercial distribution of implementations of these Open Protocols.

As far as everyones reaction to this, Arstechnica wins with the best quote:

“Instead of offering a patent license for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GPL—the world’s most widely used open source software license.”

It may settle some curiosity in regards to how close certain reverse engineered implementations are to the actual protocol, but beyond that I don’t think it will make any difference. I think this caveat would limit most projects ability to utilize the information. I don’t think any major project is willing to utilize code subject to that limitation.

For example I mentioned just the other day that Exchange compatibility would bring about the most corporate adoption to Mozilla Thunderbird. Well this could potentially help make that a reality, except Mozilla’s commercial arm would be subject to trouble come release time. Not to mention any downstream commercial distribution that includes it (including many Linux distributions) unless they include a version without this code.

It may however be possible for a company to sell a product and offer a GPL licensed open source “plugin” or “addon” that adds the functionality. So for example Thunderbird would ship as usual via Mozilla Messaging and various Linux distributions. If you wanted exchange compatibility you would need to go to mozilla.org and download the addon for it. Similar to the current process for the provider for Google Calendar. However this adds a nasty extra step for users. It’s far from ideal.

The other notable thing in my mind is this part of their principles:

Industry Standard Formats. Microsoft supports many data formats promulgated by standards bodies in its products today. We will apply Principle II with respect to any standards-based data formats in our high-volume products. We will incorporate customer advice from our Interoperability Executive Customer Council and our ongoing community and customer engagement efforts to give us guidance to prioritize which standards we support in any given product release.

We want OpenDocument.

So despite all the media attention, I don’t think open source gained much today. There’s potential (OpenDocument getting priority would be nice), but really no big win. I just don’t see projects giving up GPL, and I’m pretty sure this agreement would violate GPL.

Mozilla Messaging

As some may remember, Mozilla’s plan for Thunderbird was to form a new (then unnamed) company owned by the Foundation. Mozilla Messaging has now launched. I’m a fan of this approach as I think it allows for the most synergy between the projects, which are really more fraternal or conjoined twins than sister projects. It also allows for more dedicated resources and focus that Thunderbird wasn’t receiving before.

David Ascher has a great post on what’s to come. There are a few things I’d like to touch on though.

…Specifically, Thunderbird 3 will build on the great base that is Thunderbird 2 (and the work already performed in trunk by the current and past contributors), and add some key features, such as:

Presumably meaning it’s based on Mozilla 1.9, though I’m not 100% clear on this.

  • Integrated calendaring (building on the great work done by the Mozilla Calendar team and their Lightning add-on to Thunderbird),

Awesome. This is something that was missing from long ago. Though I wonder how far it will go without the server side being as available, robust and tested. Exchange compatibility would bring about the most corporate adoption, though that could be difficult to engineer. Google Calendar is supported via an addon. It’s still lacking in a few places, though rapidly improving. I believe it also works with Zimbra (can anyone confirm?), which is a good start.

  • better search facilities,

I’m curious what this entails. Search is always tricky. Google Desktop has proven a good solution for many who need better search with their email client.

  • easier configuration,

Cool. Enough said. I’ve had thoughts on that for a while.

  • and a set of other user interface improvements.

Hopefully this will result in some native skinning similar to what Firefox 3.0 is doing.

Address Book is also about 4 years overdue for an overhaul. Personally I think it should be replaced entirely and use a mozStorage backend. Perhaps even look at the possibility of some data sharing with services like Facebook, Plaxo and LinkedIn. Obviously being careful to avoid causing a Scoble by scraping data. For something like this data portability will be critical.

Personally I’d like to see some standard emerge where closed messaging services can essentially be interfaced like an IMAP account. So one could plug in their account info and interact with their account via any tool they choose. Obviously sending would be limited to within the provider’s walls. Contacts, data, etc. can be sync’d between both providing a seamless experience.

…Another strength is that we already have a complete web technology stack built into our mail client, and as a result, we can consider deep integration with both websites and web services which other solutions can only dream of.

Extensions are powerful. But this is really where the strength is. It’s a rather complete platform, and constantly expanding to keep up with the latest. It’s far from a hacked together parser that does a subset of html.

I suspect 3.0 will be somewhat of a quieter release. Change won’t come overnight. Those expecting a radical new approach to email by 3.0 will likely be disappointed. 4.0 is where things will become a more disruptive. I’d assume this will correspond with Mozilla2, which might work out to be an advantage.

As a final note, for any who don’t realize Scott MacGregor and David Bienvenu (no idea where his new blog will be) aren’t working for Mozilla Messaging but will still be involved with Thunderbird. They haven’t said too much on their plans yet.

That’s about all of my thoughts on the topic for now.

Thunderbird is dead, long live Thunderbird.
Email is dead, long live Email.