Important “Little Black Books”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of Thunderbird, and what areas we should invest in in addition to the obvious ones like long-term maintainability, user experience, and the like. One area which is growing in importance in my mind is what’s referred to as “contacts”. By that I don’t mean the current address book features in Thunderbird, which are useful, and a starting point, but minimal. I mean something much more connected, much more central to what the user experience of a communications client should be.

After all, we don’t send emails to email addresses. We send emails to friends, family, colleagues, partners, bosses. We mostly don’t read corporate blogs, we read the blogs of our friends, idols, and enemies. We don’t send instant messages to aliases, but to significant others, co-conspirators, and other people.

What this means for Thunderbird’s future is still to be figured out, but I thought I’d mention it today because I saw this story from InfoWorld about a Yahoo initiative called oneConnect, which seems to be along similar lines of thought as my own, including interoperation with various social networking to build up a fuller picture of one’s true relationships, which is richer than any one provider’s perspective.

There’s one major distinction between my vision and the one oneConnect seems to promote, which is that I think individuals should be at the center of their own “social manifold”, not Yahoo, or Yahoo/Microsoft, or Google, or any other central party. And that’s a place where I think Mozilla’s approach, whether through the use of desktop software or hosted storage of client-side encrypted data, is the approach worth advocating. Individuals should be able to choose to trust providers to store that data for them, or not. And they should be able to change their mind as to the state of those trust relationships, especially given this heady M&A frenzy.

In particular, consider the implications of something like Yahoo’s oneConnect and the possible Yahoo/Microsoft merger, given this other story from Fortune about Microsoft’s approach to data portability.

Josh Quittner summarizes his perspective as: “My contacts should belong to me”. Couldn’t have said it better myself.


  1. I think you should take a look at social networks to see how people browse and create new relationships. I think you should look at some of the broad ideas Chandler has, but realize them with a polished and useful user interface. Being able to view a summary of things that have changed (new emails, rss feeds, newsletter subscriptions, new offline IMs from existing friends, upcoming appointments).
    Respecting trusted relationships, surpressing new relationship content until a relationship is created. I don’t want to see 10,000 new IMs from Yahoo from people until I’ve said they are friends or not, don’t put them in my important updates. Doing all of this with a fresh user-centric UI will go a long ways from giving people a new way to communicate over the web.


  2. Very interesting post. I definitely agree that this is needed in Thunderbird. Speaking of people, how about finally getting support for people’s birthdays and anniversaries, with the ability to get an alarm x days prior to those days (of course, you would want the notification earlier if it’s your spouse’s bday than if it’s a remote facebook friend)?


  3. A “Contacts” application is definitely something that I would like to see outside of Thunderbird but still linked in. It always bugs me that every app I work with has its own built-in contacts database. They are usually either workgroup-focused and live on a central server so I can’t take the contacts with me when I leave the office, or they are individual-focused and live only on my machine so its hard to work in a group. None of them talk to each other very well, if at all, and extensibility is often limited to a couple of fields in a database table.

    Having a local contacts app with an API so that interfaces could be relatively easily created inside the browser, the email client, and any other apps that I create/use, would be wonderful! With more and more web apps popping up in intranets and the Internet, a contacts app that can be linked into a sidebar in my browser means that I can fill out forms just by dragging a contact to the appropriate field. How many intranet web apps have had to reinvent the contacts manager wheel would probably blow our minds, and most do a mediocre job.

    This is has, in fact, been one of my pet projects. I’m not much interested in hacking on Thunderbird but a contacts app as I have described would be extremely tempting to volunteer for.

    I understand why no one has built one yet, there is little direct profit in such a thing – kind of like the browser space. However, if its portable, can scale, and is extensible, with a good API, it would be awesome.

    There is something like this in Windows Vista called, simply, “Contacts”. I don’t think it scales to workgroups and doesn’t look too extensible but there is also something called Contacts.Net which seems to allow you to access it from C#. Mozilla could do it better and cross-platform, I’m sure. Making it tie-in to Thunderbird and Firefox would establish a foundation for all kinds of social-type extensions for both applications. It would be the foundation for the social dimension that is lacking in the browsr itself, and hence the open web in general. I can also see this creating the foundation for fixing several annoying things with the current state of email as we currently use it, but this comment is getting longer than your post!


  4. Very interesting and logical. I’d have privacy concerns myself, as all this inter-linked data needs to be locked down tight. The idea of not contacts as in email addresses but people is also very interesting. Integration of a multi protocol messaging? Choosing how you want to contact a _person_. MySpace IM, Facebook Message, Email, instant message.

    I do think Thunderbird has a hard task here, in that it has to be a jack of all trades. A communication tool. We communicate on so many different levels and in so many different ways, for various different reasons. Being the master of newsgroup/email/instant messaging/what have you is a hard task.

    However there’s no firm ideas yet of Thunderbird’s direction to my knowledge. A good thing, lots of thought should be put into this, and it is.


  5. I thought the approach Synovel Spicebird took wrt integrating with XMPP was cool. Basically, every GMail user has an XMPP-enabled account; it looks like AOL users might soon follow. It would be interesting to take xmpp4moz and integrate it into Thunderbird somehow.


  6. Along these lines, I think it’d be great to have one of the folder-pane views be “Contacts.” That is, instead of a list of accounts/folders, it would be a list of everyone in your address book. Like the normal folder views, unread counts would appear next to each name showing the number of unread messages to/from that person. Clicking on that would show all your emails with that person, across all accounts. Obviously there’s need to be a “Not in Contacts” section, too, for mails from people who you don’t know. Throw in a “Compose new message” link/button at the bottom of the message-tree and I think I’d find this view incredibly useful.

    When I finish converting the folder-pane from rdf to js, I may try to prototype such an extension.


  7. Great. Things are starting to take shape, aren’t they..

    Another advantage of mailco could be just the start from TB (and LT?), meaning that over the whole “Persons”, to call it that, you could add various layers of whatever UI one may like, be it a mail like view, a “contacts” like joey said in a comment here, see all comm in a calendar view (like gcaldaemon playing with rss in cal..) or even in a browser as a page or whatever soft one may use. Well, having such a “layered” communication base on top of an all contacts core could also be called openness .. And when it comes to mobiles, well, it takes more than an Iphone to count, though a 10 year old boy may seam like putting a subtle pressure.. 😉

    I wonder if the next step is the corporate comm or CRM or whatever one may call the same comm base in enterprises.

    Ahh, if only I could post this comment from Thunderbird …


  8. #6 > the TB extension “Contacts Sidebar” does just this, except there is no “Not in contacts” option (great idea btw).
    I don’t use it anymore, because I have no room left but it’s handy.


  9. Ovidiu,
    Yes I think that would be a great first step to moving Tb towards a total communications solution. That is, the ability to comment to a blog within TB. (Unfortunately I don’t see a link to this blog as an RSS feed at all, just to the comment feed) Or maybe I’m just missing it somehow.


  10. I would suggest you look closely at Zooko’s Triangle and the concept of petnames. (google knows.) This concept of contacts at the center of communication has been thought about heavily, especially in the capabilities school (which is a sort of ultra-secure, ultra scaleable architectural school of computing science.

    And it does work (I’ve built partial implementations and seen other efforts). Problem is, it has always put too much power in the hands of the users, so the major suppliers have not desired it. However, they will eventually adopt it, because it solves real problems when they really need to be solved.


  11. Felipe, (#8)
    The Contacts Sidebar isn’t quite what I want. I want to be able to click on a name and have the message-view show me only those messages from that person, just like clicking on ‘Inbox’ shows me only messages in the inbox.

    In short, contacts are *not* useful in and of themselves. Instead, they’re useful as filters on information (like my messages), because that’s how I chunk information. I may not remember any of the exact words in the email I sent last week, but I know I sent it to John. Just like I may not remember when that meeting was, but I know Jill was there. Contacts-as-filters is what I’m looking for with my data, because that’s how my brain works.


  12. Hello David

    The need to share address book is an old request from users. Whatever the methods used. Every day I see users saying to me “I would want to create an address book which be shared between our workgroup’s members. How can I do that ?”

    So I recently installed FF3rc3 with the « Weave » add-on from Mozilla labs. And it’s perhaps the natural answer for your question. Adding the « Weave » add-on to Tb will be a manner to share address books.

    Adding social networks access and « who owns the data ? » question are also another interesting questions (and I agree with Josh Quittner). But the topic of your post is more wide than addressbook issue.

    Mozilla labs work on unconnected web browsing and personal information sharing (Weave). Another fact is that mobile computing (smartphones and others) will spread massively in 2008. So my questions are: will TB in the future become a kind of webportal which could be run on all kinds of devices? If not, what about a Mobile Thunderbird (like Mobile Firefox) ?

    However, I think UI or shared address book are not yet the really important questions because the core of the problem is e-mail format. If you change the format you redefine entirely the software and the way you use it.

    My first email was sent with cc:Mail for DOS in 1991 and I don’t see profound changes in the manner to use an e-mail client since this first experience. Of course, TB has a complete set of enhanced features which makes it more efficient and powerfull than my old cc:mail. But if my cc:mail was an Archeopteryx, I think my TB has yet kept some teeth ;). The central issue is that full compatibility between e-mail clients is not a reality. For example, Outlook uses RFC (when it is not a pure proprietary format) that TB doesn’t use and reciprocally. I think the rfc822 (and others rfc which amend it) is really outdated. It was made in 1982 for 7 bit ASCII messages only. The 21th century e-mail format might be a full XML UTF-8 one; a mail might be then translated easily from/for another media like IM, html, office document formats or others formats unknown nowadays. XML format will open a path to an universal communication software.

    Do you think I’m wrong ?

    Am I just an utopian ?


  13. David…what would you do if someone handed you a Linux-based Web 2.0 solution running on 64 bits… composed of exclusive operating systems for client and server, web server software and their applications? and it worked?


  14. well Joe (#10)
    fortunately you have the rss icon inside Firefox address bar to do it where is missing. And if TB set as default for rss may even go there. I wonder how I would do it (detect?) easier from TB. By using such “all contacts” base probably opens many ways of doing it, but till then, dragging the icon from the address (not rss, the normal one that saids “drag to create link..” ) over TB could make it “see” if there’s a feed in that page as FF does.

    [Hmm, you can actually do it now, but to a precise folder and with useless results (just a link http..) and if dragging a rss link doesn’t even do that ..]


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