I am saddened, but not surprised by the news that Thunderbird will no longer be developed by Mozilla. Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, cites the maturation of dedicated email clients and the attraction of web based alternatives as the reasons why Mozilla is leaving Thunderbird behind.
I have long believed that desktop apps strengthen the web experience, and no where has this been more true than in the application of email. As someone who has been sending and receiving electronic correspondence for almost 20 years, I find it hard to believe that my entire email record can be encapsulated into a single webpage. That all of the actions I have taken reading, sorting, responding, and archiving email can be accomplished within a web browser alone. I am not denying the capacity of modern servers, or the capabilities of HTML5. I just don’t see how the web alone makes email a better experience, especially now that technologies like IMAP keep the the desktop and web in sync.
I use a desktop email app when I want reliable drag and drop, local storage, address book integration, advanced automation, and access to the file system. I use a email web portal when I am on the go, visiting a foreign platform, concerned about security, low on resources, or interacting within a greater social network. Thanks to the existence of both desktop clients and web portals I can pick the email experience that is best for me given the situation1, but given the complexity of configuring an email client I see why most people stick with the web.
Thunderbird 1.0 was released on December 7th, 2004. Started as an open source, cross-platform email and news client developed by the Mozilla Foundation, the Thunderbird project was modeled after the success of Mozilla Firefox. At the time of Thunderbird’s release existing email clients were well established with mature feature sets. Thunderbird offered a lightweight alternative with the promise of the same kind extensibility that made Firefox so popular. Thunderbirds entry into the email market drove over 500,000 downloads in the first three days, and a combined 1,000,000 downloads by the following week.
The question is, seven years later, how many people are still using Thunderbird now instead of the default email clients that shipped on their computers? In the corporate world email is dominated by Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. At home email has become part of a greater social experience controlled by Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo! There was never any public outcry to replace the default email client with a freely available alternative like there was in the battle between Firefox and Internet Explorer. Thunderbird failed to live up to Mozilla’s expectations because there was never any demand for an alternative email client to begin with. As platforms are closing, and computing appliances are taking over, Thunderbird is losing the little ground it once had, and Mozilla needs to concentrate on its primary money maker. Without a source of income, such as the build-in Google search in Firefox, I am not surprised Thunderbird is being dropped by Mozilla, but I am a little saddened nerds like me won’t have a decent desktop email client when booting into Linux.
Thunderbird has always been my favorite desktop email client on Linux where few other alternatives exist. ↩