Mozilla, an organization that is best known for its Firefox web browser, is starting 2019 by renewing focus on its Thunderbird email client. It’s a move that comes after a meandering 20-year path for the open-source organization’s email efforts.
Email is not a new thing for Mozilla, and to understand how long the organization has been grappling with developing an email client, it’s important to go back and look at the history of the internet itself. Mozilla has its roots in the Netscape browser, which in its final years had a full suite known as Netscape Communicator that included both email and web browser applications. The original Mozilla suite that debuted in 1998 included both email and browser capabilities.
In 2003, Mozilla split its email and browser efforts into two groups, one for browsers that led to Firefox and the other effort for email, which is where Thunderbird comes in. So yeah, Mozilla has been trying to build traction for its stand-alone email client for 16 years, with a lot of ups and downs along the way.
In 2007, Mozilla announced the Mozilla Messaging effort, which was supposed to be a stand-alone organization tasked with building Thunderbird. That effort failed and was folded back into Mozilla in 2011. In July 2012 after nearly a decade of trying to get traction for Thunderbird, Mozilla Chief Mitchell Baker announced that Mozilla would pull back its focus and funding from Thunderbird. At that point, many assumed that Thunderbird was done, but that’s not quite how things have turned out.
Over the past six and a half years, an interesting thing has happened. Thunderbird hasn’t died; it has remained, and now in 2019 it could re-emerge, as Mozilla dedicates new focus and resources to the effort.
“So here we are, in 2019. Looking into the future, this year looks bright for the Thunderbird project,” Ryan Sipes, community manager for the Thunderbird project, wrote in a blog post.
Sipes wrote that at the end of 2018, there were eight full-time staff working on Thunderbird. The plan, he said, is to add up to six additional staff over the course of 2019. The new staff will be engineering personnel that will work on making Thunderbird faster and easier to use. Among the items that Mozilla’s Thunderbird staff will work on in 2019 are efforts to improve the notification system to better integrate with native operating system notification systems.
“By working on this feature Thunderbird will feel more ‘native’ on each desktop and will make managing notifications from the app easier,” Sipes said.
When Thunderbird was first built, web-based mail systems were not the default for most organizations and users, but that’s no longer the case in 2019. To that end, better support for integrating with Gmail is part of the 2019 plan. Thunderbird developers will also work on improving the integration of email encryption technology.
“Encryption, it should just work,” Thunderbird developers wrote in a mailing list entry for the 2019 roadmap. “We can’t expect the end user to know how to renew a certificate, and it’s questionable if they should be expected to know they have a certificate at all.”
Even though Mozilla is set to put more focus on Thunderbird in 2019 than it has since at least 2012, there are still likely to be large gaps. While Mozilla’s Firefox web browser benefits from a funding model that brings in millions, Mozilla has never really figured out a sustainable, growing revenue approach for Thunderbird. Mozilla has had different search engine partnerships over the years, mostly with Google and for a short time with Yahoo.
“Today, the majority of Mozilla Corporation revenue is generated from global browser search partnerships, including the deal negotiated with Google in 2017 following Mozilla’s termination of its search agreement with Yahoo/Oath which required ongoing payments to Mozilla that remain the subject of litigation,” Mozilla stated in its 2017 Annual Report, which was released on Nov. 27, 2018.
For 2017, Mozilla generated $542 million in royalties, subscriptions and advertising revenues, most of it tied to Firefox. Thunderbird does not have anything as lucrative as Firefox, in terms of funding.
“Donations from individual contributors are our primary source of funding, and we greatly appreciate all our supporters who made this year so successful!” Sipes wrote.
Overall, it’s great to see Thunderbird still alive and moving forward for 2019, even if it is still largely reliant on donations to survive. For those who want or need a desktop email client, having a stable, actively maintained open-source option is a very good thing.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.