“I just really want to know what’s going on with Thunderbird”

Someone called Rod asked a bunch of questions in reaction to a recent post:

Your developers left. Where did they go? How are they going to continue to participate in Thunderbird development? Who is going to be taking their place as the lead developers? If you don’t know yet, what’s your action plan for figuring that out?
What’s the release schedule for Thunderbird? Are we still aiming for a 3.0 this winter? Is it going to be pushed off indefinitely?
What about new features for Thunderbird? There have been a number of allusions to using MailCo as an opportunity to redefine email. Wonderful! What does that mean, what have you done in that regard?
That’s what I mean about the state of affairs… what’s the 10,000 foot view of the Thunderbird landscape? Where are you now, and where are you going with it, and why should we hang around and wait and continue to convert people to Thunderbird?

Btw, please note that I’m totally not trying to be a smartass or combative here. I just really want to know what’s going on with Thunderbird. In the past few weeks I’ve seen nothing except tight-lipped-ness from both Mozilla and the (former) Thunderbird developers, and vague hints that great things are coming. I’d just like some real info to back up those hints, that’s all.

I can’t answer all of those, but I’ll see what I can do.

First, any tight-lipedness on my part or the part of anyone else at Mozilla about Scott & David’s plans is simply because we can’t, and won’t, talk about their plans on their behalf. I don’t know what they’re planning on doing in any detail, and even if I did I wouldn’t say anything without their express permission. So for all questions about Scott & David, please talk to them.

Now, onto the things that I can talk about.

I just really want to know what’s going on with Thunderbird.

I don’t want to sound flippant, but I suspect the biggest difference this month compared to, say, June, is that there’s more talking with people outside of Mozilla about Thunderbird and the exciting possibilities that lay ahead. Many people come to me (the new guy, designated point man, bullseye, lightning rod, etc.) with ideas, plans, resumes, etc. That’s basically “what’s going on”.

At the bug & code level, as far as I can tell, it’s business as usual. For example, I noticed today that David Bienvenu was in the IRC channel, helping people with their patches. That’s not noteworthy, that’s just David staying involved like he said he would!

I want to emphasize that at this stage, it’s just talk. There have been no decisions about specific Thunderbird plans. Those take a long time to form, especially in a distributed, global, collaborative, multi-factorial system like Mozilla. Some people will, I’m sure, criticize me for that, wanting clear authoritative leadership, someone to take charge, etc. However, I don’t think that would fly very well with the dozens of people who have done a lot more to make Thunderbird what it is today than I have! I’m much more interested in getting to know them, understanding what their ideas are, and figuring out together a roadmap which enough people can align with, and which motivates others to join.

Q: How are they [Scott & David] going to continue to participate in Thunderbird development?

A: Like any other contributor, especially as their privileged status as module owner doesn’t change just because their employment status changes.

Q: Who is going to be taking their place as the lead developers?

A: They’re still module owners, as per the cultural practices of the project. Clearly I need engineers on staff to work with them and the other contributors on the codebase. As to who that will be, I don’t know yet. See below.

If you don’t know yet, what’s your action plan for figuring that out?

A: I’m talking to other developers familiar with the code base, such as Seamonkey module owners, peers, etc., finding out if they or people they recommend would be good people to hire. I’ll be going through an interview process with the help of Mozilla engineers to identify the best people for the job. So far, I’m having interesting conversations. I look forward to being able to announce those hires!

Q: What’s the release schedule for Thunderbird? Are we still aiming for a 3.0 this winter? Is it going to be pushed off indefinitely?

A: I’d be a really bad software project manager (or whatever it is I am in this context) if I said what the release schedule was for Thunderbird before I had a good idea of scope, resources, rate of change, etc. However, given the current staffing levels as of mid-October, and my understanding that there are no major new features currently implemented on the trunk codebase from which a 3.0 build would come, I think that a 3.0 release this winter is unlikely.

Q: What about new features for Thunderbird? There have been a number of allusions to using MailCo as an opportunity to redefine email. Wonderful! What does that mean, what have you done in that regard?

A: I’m sure you don’t expect me to have a fully baked answer to what “redefining email” means after a couple of weeks on the job. Just to clarify — I wasn’t hired because I had a specific vision for Thunderbird. I was hired, I believe, because it was felt that I could help shepherd the community towards a new vision. That will take time and patience on everyone’s part.

Also — if this was a typical product, and I was the product manager, either I’d refuse to answer (if you don’t promise anything, you can’t disappoint — that’s why Apple keeps its secrets so well), or I’d answer based on a spec which I’d built over weeks, using estimates that the rest of the team had built over weeks. As it is, I haven’t even begun to go through the bug database, the mozillazine forums, or the newsgroups, to learn about the features that Thunderbird users have asked for in the past. So project management realities alone mean that you shouldn’t believe anything I’d say about specific new features, even if the choices were mine alone.

That said, I have a few general thoughts that I’ve been noodling on, based on my conversations and readings in the last few weeks, which might help with the current uncertainties. Again, they’re just my early thoughts, and don’t read much into them.

There are at least three timescales with which I’m thinking about Thunderbird planning.

  1. the very short term. Are there burning issues which need attention this week, or this month?

    I’m not ramped up enough yet to answer that question. Luckily, I don’t have to! The staff of Mozilla Corp, with Scott and David’s help, are keeping on keeping on with respect to emergency issues in the short term.

  2. the medium term (say, a year or so): what features and other changes should we be looking to add to the current system, that will make a significant difference in the lives of millions of users, but which are not so big or hard to implement that they can’t be ready for mass market use within a year.

    This is a big topic, but some high-level points include:

    • Calendaring and task management are generally desired features, that all major competitors provide, and which are supported by well-defined standards. I think it’s likely that Thunderbird will grow some related features, likely starting with Lightning, which is already well under way to being useful to masses.
    • Thunderbird needs to be as good a platform for extension writers as Firefox has become. There’s architectural, website, documentation, and community work to do there. I’m confident that if we do the foundational work that makes it easy for creative developers to experiment, amazing extension will emerge, which we can then consider for integration into the core product.
    • If there are ways to make Thunderbird interoperate with more mail providers than our current set (IMAP, POP, and special-cased Gmail) in such a way that the product integrity is preserved, then I think we should see about facilitating those use cases.
  3. the long term (say, five years from now): what major architectural shifts are needed to ensure that we’re relevant then, given the large shifts in the industry, whether that’s the maturation of the web as platform, the advent of much better mobile devices, the emergence of non-email channels, etc.
  4. I have very rough thoughts that fall into that bucket, but I’m not ready to discuss them yet — I’d rather spend my time figuring out who has informed opinions, code, people, or time to contribute to figuring out possible long-term roadmaps. (I tend to leak half-baked ideas though, so be a bit patient and you’ll probably get stuff to chew on).

I don’t think you’ll find much above to back up specific “great things that are coming”. That’s not because I don’t think great things won’t come, but because, even though no one believes us, we don’t know what those things will be. I still believe, maybe unreasonably, that there’s enough potential in a vibrant Thunderbird (which, by the way, is getting more investment than it ever has) that more people with better ideas will want to jump in, and we can then see where that leads us.

I hope this helps, Ron, and whoever else was thinking what Ron was. Feel free to ask me more specifics, and I’ll answer as best I can. I’m happy to answer questions as to what I’m doing, what I’m planning, what I’m thinking. Hopefully my blogging will make that clear over the weeks to come, and we can get over this patch of uncertainty and discomfort for some. Then if what I say sounds interesting, and you want to help, let me know.

10 Comments

  1. It’s important to note that Thunderbird 2.0, a product shipped by the Mozilla Corporation, is still supported by the Mozilla Corporation. We’re working on the Thunderbird 2.0.0.8 security updates now, in fact (should be avilable in a couple more weeks). People using Thunderbird 2 have nothing to worry about, we’ve got you covered.

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  2. 95% of email is spam.

    I think we need to “redefine email” today, not next year 🙂

    I don’t know anyone who uses email anymore, one or two of my friends have hotmail or gmail (but they won’t ever be thunderbird users, so forget them for a moment)…
    What is the point of an open source email client? Isn’t it like building an open source gopher client? A bit 10 years ago?

    People are on MySpace, Twitter, MSN. How will thunderbird help them?

    Why put money into this project when Mozilla could build a better Twitter (peer-to-peer, encrypted, add Flickr.com stuff to it, video, 3D graphics etc.)?

    Thanks,

    monk.e.boy

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  3. In terms of what to do in the medium term… As I’m sure you know, I’m a great fan of opportunistic encryption, and I think that this would be a mighty fine way to improve Tbird for millions of users. This would basically adopt the Skype ethos of doing everything possible to bootstrap into secure mode without bothering the user at all.

    I don’t want the guy across the street harvesting the old wireless net, I don’t want the ISP datamining my IMAP emails, I don’t want anyone else reading the sex chat messages I have with my g/f, and …

    Opportunistic encryption can solve this, and Tbird is in a good position to do this. As a first step, when accounts are created, simply generate a suitable self-signed key pair in the name of the account and make it available for use. Of course, it can be replaced, later on, if the user wants to use a better cert.

    (as a side-note, it seems that Leopard Mail.app now adds the ability to manage multiple certificates. It has been suggested that this change has been pushed by USG usage of smart card identity tokens for all public servants.)

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  4. @Monk … I disagree, although maybe I’m too old to see it 🙂

    The thing is, email is a *work* tool not a social tool. When I use email to manage a project I also use the phone, chat, physical meetings, and whatever else comes to hand, but when push comes to shove, the major discussions take place over email.

    It’s true that the new generation doesn’t use email much if at all. But, when they join the management circles, they generally have to pick it up, and they have to graduate from hotmail to Tbird. What they suggest is better is often tried and ditched. There hasn’t been a single tool that has packaged together email’s distribution, presentation and archiving possibilities in a way that really works in a project management setting, that I’ve ever seen.

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  5. Let’s see, email is both irrelevant because “I don’t know anyone who uses email anymore” and at the same time, so absolutely critical to a platform that every vendor (Apple, Google, Microsoft) invests heavily in email tools specific to their platform. David, you have your work cut off for you to make any sense of all of this.

    The allusion to gopher in monk.e.boy’s comments is interesting. What was the “open source gopher client”? Wasn’t it the original Netscape browser, that recognized the limitations of gopher and introduced the new paradigm that transformed the internet experience? Yes email is in crisis today, but that could be the sign that a major shift in thinking is needed.

    But how do you get there? And how do you make money doing it, as a captive open source company without the hope for the big future payoff that I presume was attractive to Scott and David?

    I think you are going to have to narrowly focus on a Big Idea, and one that somehow leverages who you are. I don’t think you will be successful trying to be an open-source replacement for Outlook Express, or a cheaper but less powerful Outlook. Your existing code base is too crufty for that, and the payoff is minimal.

    Here’s my list of possible Big Ideas – though they wouldn’t qualify as unobvious in a patent application:

    1. Partner with Chandler to develop the concept and protocols of the universal item, mutable into other objects.

    2. Implement the research of PARC’s Victoria Bellotti on email as the center of personal task management.

    3. Provide an open source universal communicator, incorporating email with presence, VOIP, video, IM, RSS/ATOM, social networking posts, etc.

    4. Focus on contact management, becoming sort of a personal CRM to manage relationships.

    5. Tightly integrate TB with a web-based collaboration environment like Sharepoint (but not Sharepoint), providing context for messages combined with controlled notification to manage information overload.

    Maybe these are too Big, perhaps what you need is a simple but useful concept like tabs were in Firefox.

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  6. A year ago the Eudora folks announced they were dropping their proprietary codebase and migrating to Tbird. How do does that fit into MailCo’s plans?

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  7. @Andre, @Raffael: Eudora is a Qualcomm project, which simply is planning to build on top of Thunderbird (which is fine because it’s an open source project). At this point there’s nothing about Eudora that is under MailCo’s purview, except that of course we’d like to make sure that Thunderbird remains useful to them.

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