Mozilla Wants To Split Off Its Thunderbird Email/Chat Client, Says Mitchell Baker Memo

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The Mozilla Foundation looks like it’s about to take another step in its bid to sharpen its focus on development around its Firefox browser. Mozilla now wants to once and for all hive off support for Thunderbird, the free email, chat and news client it first developed in 2004 but effectively stopped directly updating in in 2012. The plans were revealed in a company-wide memo penned today by chairperson Mitchell Baker. (We have confirmed with Mozilla that it is indeed from her.)

“I believe Thunderbird should would thrive best by separating itself from reliance on Mozilla development systems and in some cases, Mozilla technology,” Baker wrote in her open memo, posted on Mozilla’s public governance forum. “The current setting isn’t stable, and we should start actively looking into how we can transition in an orderly way to a future where Thunderbird and Firefox are un-coupled.”

Baker notes that it is not clear whether Mozilla will try to spin off Thunderbird as its own open-source entity, or whether it will seek a business partner to take over the product; it seems too early to tell at this point.

What is more clear is that Mozilla has been trying to streamline how it runs things and the focus of its engineers as part of a bigger campaign to rejuvenate Firefox, part of a long-term fightback to gain more market share against competitors like Google Chrome.

Mozilla now views any support for Thunderbird, even the limited support it has been providing for the past three years, as akin to “paying a tax,” in Baker’s words, on top of the work those engineers spend building Firefox.

“These competing demands are not good for either project,” she writes. “Engineers working on Thunderbird must focus on keeping up and adapting Firefox’s web-driven changes. Engineers working on Firefox and related projects end up considering the competing demands of Thunderbird, and/or wondering if and how much they should assist Thunderbird. Neither project can focus wholeheartedly on what is best for it.”

Apart from the fact that Mozilla had cut off most development support in 2012, Thunderbird has become a somewhat anachronistic product.

Hitting the market in 2004, at a time when many consumers were still wedded to desktop clients to access email services, Thunderbird got off to a flying start, with 1 million downloads in its first 10 days of life. But in the years following, many switched to mobile apps and web-based clients, and Thunderbird’s popularity waned.

Mozilla and the wider Thunderbird community have not provided any updates on how many Thunderbird users there are today, or how many downloads of the client, or what kind of usage the application sees.

And for Mozilla itself, focus has largely switched to developing its core Firefox browser for more platforms, and generally making Firefox more of a business, integrating with Yahoo and Google to generate revenues around search ads.

When Mozilla passed Thunderbird development on to a volunteer-led community in 2012, it committed itself only to providing “extended support releases” focused only on security and maintenance updates mainly aimed at large organizations who use Thunderbird. In that regard, for Thunderbird and its users, this is potentially a rough turn, but it’s not really a surprising one.

Full text of the memo below:

This is a long-ish message. It covers general topics about Thunderbird
and the future, and also the topics of the Foundation involvement (point
9) and the question of merging repositories (point 11).   Naturally, I
believe it’s worth the time to read through the end.

1. Firefox and Thunderbird have lived with competing demands for some
time now. Today Thunderbird developers spend much of their time
responding to changes made in core Mozilla systems and technologies. At
the same time, build, Firefox, and platform engineers continue to pay a
tax to support Thunderbird.

2. These competing demands are not good for either project. Engineers
working on Thunderbird must focus on keeping up and adapting Firefox’s
web-driven changes. Engineers working on Firefox and related projects
end up considering the competing demands of Thunderbird, and/or
wondering if and how much they should assist Thunderbird. Neither
project can focus wholeheartedly on what is best for it.

3. These competing demands will not get better soon. Instead, they are
very likely to get worse. Firefox and related projects are now speeding
up the rate of change, modernizing our development process and our
infrastructure. Indeed, this is required for Mozilla to have significant
impact in the current computing environment.

4. There is a belief among some that living with these competing demands
is good for the Mozilla project as a whole, because it gives us an
additional focus, assists Thunderbird as a dedicated open source
community, and also supports an open source standards based email
client. This sentiment is appealing, and I share it to some extent.
There is also a sense that caring for fellow open source developers is
good, which I also share.  However, point 2 above — “Neither project can
focus wholeheartedly on what is best for it” — is the most important
point. Having Thunderbird has an additional product and focus is *not*
good overall if it causes all of our products — Firefox, other
web-driven products and Thunderbird — to fall short of what we can
accomplish.

5.  Many inside of Mozilla, including an overwhelming majority of our
leadership, feel the need to be laser-focused on activities like Firefox
that can have an industry-wide impact.    With all due respect to
Thunderbird and the Thunderbird community, we have been clear for years
that we do not view Thunderbird as having this sort of potential.

6.  Given this, it’s clear to me that sooner or later paying a tax to
support Thunderbird will not make sense as a policy for Mozilla.    I
know many believe this time came a while back, and I’ve been slow to say
this clearly.  And of course, some feel that this time should never
come.  However, as I say, it’s clear to me today that continuing to live
with these competing demands given our focus on industry impact is
increasingly unstable.  We’ve seen this already, in an unstructured way,
as various groups inside Mozilla stop supporting Thunderbird.  The
accelerating speed of Firefox and infrastructure changes — which I
welcome wholeheartedly — will emphasize this.

7.  Some Mozillians are eager to see Mozilla support community-managed
projects within our main development efforts.  I am also sympathetic to
this view, with a key precondition.  Community-managed projects that
make the main effort less nimble and likely to succeed don’t fit very
well into this category for me.  They can still be great open source
projects — this is a separate question from whether the fit in our main
development systems.  I feel so strongly about this because I am so
concerned that “the Web” we  love is at risk.  If we want the traits of
the Web to live and prosper in the world of mobile, social and data then
we have to be laser-focused on this.

8.  Therefore I believe Thunderbird should would thrive best by
separating itself from reliance on Mozilla development systems and in
some cases, Mozilla technology. The current setting isn’t stable, and we
should start actively looking into how we can transition in an orderly
way to a future where Thunderbird and Firefox are un-coupled.   I don’t
know what this will look like, or how it will work yet. I do know that
it needs to happen, for both Firefox and Thunderbird’s sake.  This is a
big job, and may require expertise that the Thunderbird team doesn’t yet
have.    Mozilla can provide various forms of assistance to the
Thunderbird team via a set of the Mozilla Foundation’s capabilities.

9. Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation and I are both interested in
helping find a way for Thunderbird to separate from Mozilla
infrastructure. We also want to make sure that Thunderbird has the right
kind of legal and financial home, one that will help the community
thrive. Mark has been talking with the Thunderbird leadership about
this, and has offered some of his time and focus and resources to
assist. He will detail that offer in a separate message. We both
recognize that the Thunderbird community is dedicated to sustaining a
vibrant open source project, which is why we’re currently looking at how
best to assist with both technical separation and identifying the right
long-term home for Thunderbird.  These discussions are very early, so
it’s easy to you can definitely think of a lot of questions for which
there are’s no answers yet.

10. The fact that the Foundation is facilitating these discussions does
not necessarily mean that the Foundation is or is not the best legal and
financial home for Thunderbird. The intent is not to make technical
decisions about support of Thunderbird by Mozilla employees, or merging
repositories, etc. Point 6 above is the shared organizing principle for
both of us.

11. I understand from recent discussions that merging mozilla-central
and comm-central would provide some reduction of effort required to ship
Thunderbird, at least in the short term. This would make sense if our
path was long term integration of the projects.  As i noted above, I
believe our path has to be the long term separation of these projects,
so that each can move as fast as possible into new things. Given that,
I’m not sure that merging them makes sense. I have to learn a bit more
about the cost / benefit analysis of merging repositories given the need
to separate these project. I’m asking the platform and release folks to
comment on this.

12.  This message is about the future and there’s a lot to work out.
It’s explicitly not to announce changes in daily activities at this
point.  People using Thunderbird will not see any change in the product
they use.   We have started this conversation early because Mozilla
works best when our community is engaged.  This is how we gather the
people who are interested, and enable those folks to engage productively
within the process.  It also of course allows those who prefer a
different course of action to be vocal.  We’ve seen this before with
Thunderbird.   Building a positive response and a positive conversation
will be a very useful first step in making a good future for Thunderbird.

Mitchell

Update: Baker has also posted about Thunderbird on her personal blog, noting that the plan is not based on “dropping” Thunderbird.