Prize money for a good Thunderbird/ project

Something else I’ve had on my blogging queue for a while:

Last month, when we had the Calendar meeting in Hamburg, we met with some of the and Sun engineers. One idea that came up that I intended to mention here is that has a Community Innovation Program, funded by Sun Microsystems, which includes cash prizes for cool projects. A project which somehow made Thunderbird and work better together would be eligible, as much as I understand the rules. So put your thinking cap on and apply!

Possible ideas:

  • An ODF reader for Thunderbird?
  • Some sort of mail merge feature?

Other ideas?

University of Toronto Student Projects

What feels like years ago, my friend Greg Wilson, a book author CS prof at the University of Toronto with a deep understanding of both the practical realities of software engineering and open source, roped me into being a “client” for a class he teaches on software engineering, where he matches students with open source projects, and gets the projects to act as if they were typical clients. I have to say, I behaved like a typical bad client. Fuzzy requirements, lousy documentation on our system, erratic email, never around to meet in person, etc.

Still, the two students assigned to me, Mike Wu and Ronald Fung, did a great job. Ronald Fung led a messy part of the project, which was about teaching Thunderbird how to detect RSS/Atom feeds in pages that mention feeds but aren’t feeds themselves, work which will likely make its way into Thunderbird 3 at some point. Thanks!

Mike Wu led the development of a Remember The Milk provider to Lightning, the calendaring add-on to Thunderbird. RTM is a popular website for tracking TODOs, so it seemed a good alternative storage mechanism for Lightning users (alternatively, Lightning seemed like a good front end for RTM users). That add-on is now on Nice job!

First Shredder alpha available!

Fresh off the press: Shredder alpha 1, the first alpha release of the next version of Thunderbird, is available for download!

As I mentioned previously, we’re going to be calling the alpha releases of Thunderbird Shredder, to make sure that people don’t get confused and download unstable releases thinking that they’re “the final thing”. That said, I’m quite pleased with where it seems Shredder a1 has landed from a quality point of view. It has very few feature changes, so don’t expect many changes from Thunderbird 2, but it is built on a quite substantially revised codebase (sharing much with Firefox 3), and therefore forms a great foundation for us to start making more substantive changes. There are some known problems, but many of us have been using nightlies for weeks with no permanent damage.

It’s been quite an education to go through even this “simple” release, starting with bug triage and driving through tree freezing, build engineering, QA, website updates, etc. Much of the release work was done by people who had never done it before, relying on the kind assistance of people who had. It wasn’t a perfect release, but I’m still quite proud of the entire team. I’d like to express my thanks to everyone involved, for their patience in this at-times stressful process. It’ll get easier and smoother each time, promise!

Now onto planning alpha 2…

Shredder Icon and artwork needed!

If you ever used a Firefox alpha or a nightly build, you know it’s called Minefield. As I’ve explained, we’re going to do the same for Thunderbird, using the name “Shredder”. Now we need some artwork!

First order of business when I grew up would be the t-shirt design, but in this day an age figuring out the icon set is the more environmental approach. Submissions should be sent to me, or ideally, attached to this bug.

For background, see the minefield icon, and the current Thunderbird Debug ICNS file, which while pretty, has nothing to do with sharp blades whirring.

Thunderbird and SSL certificates

Thunderbird was recently released to the world: yet another security release for Thunderbird. Yay, and thanks to all involved! All was well, until news came in through a bug report that one of those included updates is problematic for some users.

Specifically, as part of making Firefox, we made a change in how the underlying platform handles SSL certificates. That change was made to increase the privacy of people visiting certain web pages, as documented in this advisory.

The problem is that the switch (asking users to confirm that they want to identify themselves with a certificate) makes sense for web pages, but it doesn’t make sense as implemented for email transactions. There’s a lot more detail in the relevant bug.

Luckily, this problem likely doesn’t affect the vast majority of Thunderbird users. It only affects users who are issued a certificate to secure the communication with the mail server, rather than relying on passwords. With the release, those users end up being asked to confirm the use of the certificate on every connection, which gets to be annoying.

Most of the users affected are likely in large organizations, as they are the ones who tend to issue their own certificates. Luckily, those organizations also often do their own QA before a deployment, so in all likelihood few people will be exposed to the bug.

Getting a fixed Thunderbird out is planned, but we’re trying to figure out how to prioritize this release relative to the other releases.

In the meantime, there is a simple workaround that can be applied per user (revert a preference setting), or, for those deployments using autoconfig, by tweaking the central configuration file.

We could also release a XPI add-on to fix the preference, but that may or many not be easier — feedback welcome.

I’d love to hear from administrators of large Thunderbird installations in particular, as this bug highlighted for me several of the challenges we have in making sure that our processes are aligned with those of large deployments.

I’m also thinking that we need to setup better communication channels with people deploying large installations of Thunderbird (email lists, different blogs, etc.). If you’re involved in large-scale deployments of Thunderbird, email me and let me know your thoughts.

inames: any hope?

So I have this nice short iname that I registered last year when I was poking around OpenID and the like. That registration is about to expire, and I think I have yet to use it except for testing purposes, in part because there’s no way when being asked for an OpenID to know whether the server supports inames or not. In addition to being just shorter hence cooler, I can’t even remember the benefits of inames over traditional URLs. I guess I’ll let it lapse…

Somebody fix identity. Please?

Contagious user interface concepts

Every now and then, a UI concept is so good that it becomes contagious in fascinating and frustrating ways. I’ve run across two recently.

The first is the iPhone touch screen. A few months ago, when I first got my iPhone, after playing with it for about 30 minutes, I went back to work on my mac, and my fingers automatically expected things like the two-finger zoom to work. I was stunned. Not surprisingly, that is now a feature of the new Macbook Air, and I expect it’ll be in all mac laptops.

The second occurred to me this morning. I was using ssh (a command line tool) to log in to a variety of machines with cryptic addresses, and I knew that I had to start looking for a place to write down those username/hostname combinations. At the same time, I realized that what I really wanted was the awesomebar for my terminal window. The notion that “the computer” should just remember what you’ve done no matter where, because past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and that we can implement that quite well with simple mechanisms like keeping a history and doing some math on that history, is a contagious idea. (Note to unix weenies: I know that with the right magic i can get some pseudo-awesomebar within bash. Not good enough! I want bookmarks, tags, weave!)

Naturally, it applies to Thunderbird as well. I routinely go back to “the same” emails. We should find a way to make that as obvious and invisible as Firefox 3 does for web pages.