Mozilla Messaging

Today we’ve announced the launch of Mozilla Messaging, the new name for the entity I’ve been calling MailCo on this blog. As promised, it’s a new subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, focused on email and internet communications. We’ve put up the essential information about the organization on the website, but I have more room for background here.

Since I signed up for this job, I’ve repeatedly been struck by the amazing opportunity it represents. No matter who I talk to, people are happy to know that Mozilla is doing this, go out of their way to express their shared optimism in the project, and either send their heartfelt best wishes, or simply offer their assistance. How many organizations can say that?

Email and other forms of internet communications present us with a paradox. The stunning proportion of our days spent communicating online clearly indicates that as a society, we are more intricately connected via the internet than ever before. I’m a case in point, strongly connected to dozens of people over the last few months in a shared effort to launch this new company, which lives nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Email, IM and IRC make that possible.

Yet as the number of such interactions grows, and as the number of ways in which we interact grows, the joy that communication can bring is too often replaced by frustration, confusion, or stress. Furthermore, as we transmit more and more digital data, privacy and control questions become more and more troublesome.

One common short-hand for the above is to say, somewhat flippantly, that “email is broken”.

I’ll explain what we’re going to do about it in the short term, but the more interesting question is for me to ask you “what are you going to do about it?” As I’ve slowly internalized over the last few months, the notion that anyone can and should participate in helping fix whatever is broken is a key tenet of the Mozilla project. It has structural implications for how we build companies, and, I believe, it’s a key advantage compared to all the other companies who are tackling the nest of issues that entangle internet communications.

We know we can’t do it alone, and we’re not even going to try. Indeed, rather than lay out a bold vision and convince people that we’re going to solve all their problems, we see our primary role as that of facilitating collaborative approaches to problem solving and incremental progress, through a combination of leadership and facilitation work. This is an unusual approach, and it can be chaotic and slow. But it seems to have worked well for Firefox and the web, and I believe it can work well for Thundebird and email.

So what’s our plan?

Our plan starts with building a great product. Firefox has shown that if you have a great product that tens of millions of people love to use daily, doors open and more opportunities become within reach. So we’ll focus on the product. Thunderbird 2 is already a hugely successful product by many measures, providing a great email experience to millions of users around the world, in 37 languages, on all three major operating systems.

We can make it even better.

We’ll do that by responding to user feedback, by incorporating key contributions from third party developers, by providing a streamlined user experience which lets people focus on the interactions they want to have with other people rather than with the software that’s in front of them. We’ll do that by taking into consideration the needs that people have today, and planning for the needs that people will have tomorrow. We’ll do it by implementing the best software engineering and open source practices we can.

No, really, what’s our plan?

We’ve started defining what Thunderbird 3 will be, because we think that there is enough consensus to make some of the first decisions on the most important changes to tackle first. Specifically, Thunderbird 3 will build on the great base that is Thunderbird 2 (and the work already performed in trunk by the current and past contributors), and add some key features, such as:

  • integrated calendaring (building on the great work done by the Mozilla Calendar team and their Lightning add-on to Thunderbird),
  • better search facilities,
  • easier configuration,
  • and a set of other user interface improvements.

What each of those means in practice will be worked out in public, on blogs, mailing lists, and newsgroups, as transparently as possible.

In parallel, we’re going to be starting a multi-year process of improving the back-end architecture of Thunderbird. Over the years, Thunderbird hasn’t had the resources devoted to it that Firefox has, and it’s time to catch up, so that we can implement many of the features we have planned, and so that we can take advantage of the improvements to the Mozilla platform that were built for Firefox, but which we can leverage as well.

Longer term

We’re also going to start a broader conversation as to what the long term vision is for Thunderbird, which will feed back into the software development plans. I’ll have more to say about this soon, but I can give a sketch of where my thinking currently is:

First, it’s important to start from a solid understanding of what Thunderbird is today. Most importantly, it’s a desktop client built on the same technology platform as Firefox. This gives it some weaknesses, and some strengths. I think we should build on the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses.

One huge strength is the extensibility of the platform, which is one key differentiator for Firefox, and which can be even more important for a communications client than it has been for a web browser. Another strength is that we already have a complete web technology stack built into our mail client, and as a result, we can consider deep integration with both websites and web services which other solutions can only dream of. Another, crucial strength, is that as an open source desktop application, Thunderbird “belongs” to the individual person using it, not to the owner of any one website or communications network. As people struggle with keeping track of disparate communication channels and social networks, this nexus of control becomes a sweet spot for integration. There are significant weaknesses as well, most importantly the need to install the software to use it. There are interesting possibilities to consider there as web application technologies become faster, richer, and better integrated with the desktop experience, which will inform our long-term planning.

Second, it’s important to keep an eye on larger trends. Email is more important than ever, and yet it’s no longer the only game in town, or even the dominant one for younger generations or emerging economies. It is worthwhile considering what the right user experience could be for someone using multiple email addresses, multiple instant messaging systems, IRC, reading and writing on blogs, using VoIP, SMS, and the like. What parts of those interactions make sense to integrate, and where? I don’t believe that stuffing all of those communication models inside of one application is the right answer. But the walled gardens that we’re faced with today aren’t the right answer either. There is room for innovation and progress here, and we need to facilitate it.

Finally, it’s important to keep our options open. Thunderbird has a unique opportunity because of its relative uniqueness as a popular open source desktop communications client. There are countless possibilities for evolution even today, and more will show up tomorrow.

Time will tell whether the plan succeeds. I’m happy to hear about other approaches we should consider, so feel free to drop me a line.

People

To build a company that can succeed in this effort requires individuals who share an common perspective on what defines success. I’m extremely proud of the people who have alread chosen to help, signing on as board members, employees and contractors, or as volunteer contributors. If you get to interact with them, I’m sure you’ll understand why. Each of them combine deep competence in some aspect of building a great software company, understands that to succeed we must be part of a broader community, and subscribes to the Mozilla vision of what the internet could and should be. They all could be spending their time doing something more lucrative, but apparently they simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to try and work together to do something really great, and have fun in the process. I can’t wait to work with all of them.

In addition, I’ve been awed by the competence and dedication of all of the people who have helped us get to today’s launch. At this point I think everyone in Mozilla has helped in some key way, starting with legal & recruiting, through engineering, QA, build, marketing, and PR, and finishing, late at night, with IT. Thanks to all, and I look forward to continuing our collaboration!

In some ways, I hope that I won’t have much occasion to write about what Mozilla Messaging, Inc. is doing over the coming months, because it is not the interesting story. We’ll provide significant input and leadership in the direction setting, engineering work, and operational support, but the really interesting story will be whether we can convince people to spend their time working with us.

Email is broken. What are you going to do about it?

117 Comments

  1. Will this program eventually evolve so you can synchronize through the computer with a blackberry. I am stuck with outlook which I truly dislike. I have found Thunderbird to be a far superior product but have not been able to synchronize with my blackberry.
    Darrell

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  2. I feel the current rout od development for Thunderbird certainly sounds logical, and exciting for htat matter. Although I suppose the only concern is that in reality, the vital aspects of software which a previous poster (Benjamin Higginbotham) pointed out, won’t be further developed in favor of the new added features taking presedence. Don’t get me wrong, Thunderbird is great, I find it an absolute pleasure to use, I would just much rather see current basic features enhanced first and foremost, and although that sounds logical, too amny software releases seem to have skipped the basics in light of some radical exciting new feature, only to then loose credibility and a large following of users, and although I can’t exactly invisage that happening, you catch my drift. Having said all that, I am certainly looking forward to the new methods of communication integration in furutre releases of Thuderbird. Keep up the great work!

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  3. I need to find the right spot to give this feedback, but anyway, one great way to re-vitalize email would be to integrate it into calendaring by establishing an open standard for email command messages. Something like what IWantSandy does, only open so that any mail provider (or stand-alone calendaring service) could handle it. In fact, Thunderbird could parse these messages on the client side.

    Email is actually the most logical and humane yet devised for human-computer interaction — we should build on that fundamental strength when thinking about scheduling and other automated activities.

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  4. If I can add my two cents…

    I’ve been working in the computer industry for over twenty years and I’ve seen email grow from a niche tool, used only by the I.T. staff, to something used by school children. As ubiquitous as it has become, there is really no one size fits all solution that will satisfy everyone, and problems still remain.

    For my part, I like the flexibility of having my own domain, but would rather leave the day to day operations of the servers to someone else. So, I pay a hosting company to maintain the servers. Because we have the current standards that we have, I can be pretty sure that my family members, whether using PC, Mac, or other system will be able to access their email accounts, either through POP or IMAP.

    On the other hand, I wish that standards were a bit more far reaching and widely accepted.

    For example, some of the things that I wish were standardized across hosting companies:

    Server based calendars
    Shared Calendars
    Event Invitations (There is some interoperability between Thunderbird and Mac Mail, but it isn’t perfect…)

    Also, I often set up mail accounts for family members in other states, and I would like to be able to easily script their installations including user and server settings. I could give them their passwords over the phone, but an install script, or equivalent would make my life a lot easier.

    Finally, it would be nice to be able to augment the existing junk mail system by tyeing it into a spam list server(s).

    Best of luck!

    I hope that Mozilla Messaging becomes a springboard for a lot of positive changes.

    Stuart

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  5. I have been relegated to MS Outlook Hell for years. Thunderbird was a great step forward but lacks the integrated functions of Outlook. Recently we added a calendar to T-Bird and that was great too, but we still lack simple solutions to simple problems like signatures. I am so happy to read this today you can’t get the smile off my face with a belt sander! I want to be a Beta Tester. I see alpha software and so I will wait a bit. GO TEAM!

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  6. It would be good if Thunderbird will get some enterprise goodies, I mean the WebDAV support. Is there any vision n that direction?

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  7. I recommend looking to Gmail for hints at interface and chat integration. One should be able to log in to Mozilla Messaging and have access to all archived material, extensions, and settings from any computer.

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  8. Thunderbirds are GO.
    Long ago in Days of DOS I started using ACT! as my contact database and management. I was never happy with the integration with Outlook and actually ran Ver 6 standalone with Thunderbird as my email client. I have wished that Act! would integrate with Thunderbird and have requested them to do so to no avail.
    I’m currently trying to use Outlook 2003 with Act! 10 which is toooo slow, so I’m finding that Outlook with Business Contact Manager 2003 is a better option.
    Integrating the Calender into Thunderbird is a great step however i would prefer a much more sophisticated PIM to be integrated. And I would be quite happy to pay for such an integrated add on if it was provided by a third party.
    Essentially I need to link the emails I send to a client to their Contact details in the address book.
    Any ideas?

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  9. I remain extremely skeptical that a client email program developed under a foundation that has been hijacked by Google will ever produce what many of Thunderbird’s many disappointed users are looking for. However, I suppose hope springs eternal and actually creating a new structure with its own vision and interests is better than having to live under the direction of someone who essentially thinks computing is a browser.

    That said, I’m a little disturbed by the focus on “messaging” per se. If you work your way through the comments that have been posted in response to the initial, one suspects, understandable if naive optimism of Mr. Ascher, you hear a recurrent theme.

    A lot of people are looking for a real PIM, tightly integrated email, calendar, addressbook (with some kind of outlining, I would suggest myself), pretty much what the Outlook-challenged ECCO was aiming at doing and never succeeded. If you keep your focus on providing half of what ECCO could accomplish ten years ago, somewhat updated, focus on exportability, and then, for heaven’s sakes, get rid of your static email UI in favor of something that looks like the final versions of Eudora, you might finally pull together a product that is an asset rather than an annoyance to its users.

    The main thing to emphasize is integration and exportability. On the email side, there are so many flaws it’s hard to know where to begin but I’ll name three: 1. filters that work on all accounts and both the Inbox and Sent folders in all folders (i.e., universal filters for those of us who still organize folders and use filters), filtered incoming mail arriving in an opened, free-floating window so you know its there, and then a small but crucial detail: Please find some way to not open every folder every time a user opens the program. This quirk whose functionality one struggles to understand, adds five to ten minutes to a nightly back-up on a day when at most 5 percent of the folders and their files were accessed.

    A pet list of complaints on the email side, I’m sure. But if you want direction, acquaint yourself with the old ECCO and the last version of Eudora and maybe you’ll get somewhere in the end. Neither of these were complete but pulled together, with exportability added, you’d have something. Obviously, brought forward to embrace new forms of messaging. Nothing wrong with that.

    Sorry I can’t be more positive but I just don’t think Thunderbird as we know it today is even nearly a credible program, after all this time.

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