as competition or inspiration?

The list of features that Apple highlights as coming in the next revision of Leopard is interesting.

They all sound pretty good to me, and I suspect they’ll make what’s already a good mail client better. While they’re all doable in Thunderbird, it’s clear that we are behind when it comes to the state of the art in email client features, even comparing against and end-user product. That should be sobering to anyone who thinks Thunderbird is “done”.

There are two ways of reacting to that realization. One is to give up and go home. The other is to see it as an opportunity. What should we learn from what they’ve done, and where should we catch up, and where should we try to beat them? While right now we’re behind in some features (and, undoubtedly, ahead in some others), we have a couple of theoretical advantages which I’d like to talk about.

First, though, it’s worth pointing out that one of the most innovative and forward-thinking companies in the industry is clearly continuing to invest in their desktop mail client. They’re doing so because they’ve figured out that mail client innovation has stalled, and that email innovation is so important to real people that it can help people switch to macs, even though it’s an expensive process requiring premium hardware. To those who doubt the need for desktop mail innovation, and to those who claim that current webmail products solve all needs, I present: Steve Jobs.

He’s not alone, by the way — Venture Beat had a story on four recent startups in the field that’s worth reading — many of those comments sound a lot like me (or I sound like them).

Now we could just be lazy and take as an operating principle to take Apple’s mail innovations and push those to the broader market of non-mac users. But I’d like to think that being an open source community, we can do better, in a variety of ways:

  • Because we’re open, we can get more people involved. One of the consequences of openness is that it might shine light on individual or group differences which a single company could miss, or, deliberately not try to solve (think long tail, market segmentation, customizations, etc.)
  • Because we’re cross-platform, the possible market reach is much bigger than Apple’s. Furthermore, thanks to the Mozilla platform, most code changes end up cross-platform by default. It’s very easy to underestimate this — Apple, Microsoft, RedHat, Novell, etc. can beat each other up until they’re red in the bottom-line, and Thunderbird will still work on their systems.
  • Because we’re not there to sell an operating system, we don’t need to wait for an operating system rev to release a new product. We can release whenever fits. The corollary is that we can not release if it’s not right yet.

There are a bunch of places where they have a leg up which we’ll have to find ways to deal with.

  • As a closed-source company, Apple can add features into software “simply” by licensing technology bits, thereby using cash (or proxies for cash) to resolve intellectual property issues (the inclusion of PDF features throughout the OS is a good example of that). Thunderbird’s licensing model means that sometimes we’ll need to work hard to resolve licensing issues, or even reimplement features at times.
  • Apple has a culture which has allowed great user interface design to emerge in finished products. Open source, traditionally, has not, although Firefox shows that you can have an open source project that’s also good looking and highly usable. This is an area where I think Thunderbird has some catching up to do, but we have some good role models to learn from
  • Apple has a clear picture of their target users, and they seem to stay pretty consistent. Thunderbird, as far as I can tell, doesn’t yet. Another action item.

One important difference which I think is fascinating to think about in this “better/worse” comparison is freedom of choice vs. freedom from choice. In many ways, “adopting” the mac is a powerful decision because it frees you as a user from having to choose which mail client to use (just use the bundled one), which image catalog software (the bundled one), which music player (the bundled one), etc. Open source and open standards-based systems, on the other hand, traditionally believe that the power to change your mind, as a user, and to pick the application that best suits your individual needs is more important than the simplicity that comes from not having to think too hard about so many choices.

One possible thread when thinking of Thunderbird futures is that we might wish to help users by providing them with fewer, smarter choices inside Thunderbird. I’m not only thinking of “fewer preferences”, which is a point many have made before, but also promoting best practices for dealing with email overflow, possible partnerships with providers of high-grade server-side systems, and the like. Sometimes, making the product better means making it simpler, even if it may feel like “robbing” the user of the power to make a different choice.

I predict all kinds of heated arguments when we get there…


  1. David,
    I think absolutely the best thing you could do right now is provide the community with an actual current state of affairs regarding Thunderbird. Your project is in limbo. Your developers have very tersely resigned. We want to know where things stand, and what the future looks like. We’ve been sitting around wondering and waiting for weeks now.

    If the Thunderbird situation and plans aren’t forthcoming, I have a feeling that some of the Thunderbird-faithful may begin looking at other alternatives, such as, whose future is not so uncertain.


  2. I mean what’s the deal?
    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?


  3. 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.


  4. “Apple has a culture which has allowed great user interface design to emerge in finished products. Open source, traditionally, has not, although Firefox shows that you can have an open source project that’s also good looking and highly usable. This is an area where I think Thunderbird has some catching up to do, but we have some good role models to learn from”

    Thunderbird needs graphical artists and UI designers on board more than anything (except actual programmers of course). Much how the Firefox 3 UI design has been done in the open with mock-ups and user feedback, Thunderbird needs to gestate and refactor it’s UI, whilst consulting the community. That way the best UI ideas will come to the surface, one hopes. It’s the biggest neglected thing in open source at the moment, in my opinion. But it’s the largest hurdle to real take up too. The projects without commercial interest almost seemingly have to neglect it, but it’s wrong. Look at what Richard Hughes has done on PackageKit’s UI, the mock-ups, the quick feedback from potential users and developers has shaped that project in such a short space of time.


  5. I don’t think I’d be too worried about the competition. Few companies sell a mail client, it some sort of package deal, so there isn’t a direct market feedback that would give them an edge in information. In contrast, someone like Apple has worked out (from that list of changes) that email is a work-process tool, and they’ve looked at how to improve people’s work process. Right. Emailing is not “fun” it’s work.


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