Shared contacts, the cheap & cheerful way

I’ve been meaning to write more about groupware and collaboration, and hopefully will find the time for a longer post on the topic, but here’s a bit of timely news. Ludovic Marcotte and friends have just released a combination of some of their previous extensions to Thunderbird and Lightning as something they call the SOGo connector: it’s an extension to Thunderbird which, when combined with Lightning, provides features like remote address book through CardDAV (sending vCards through CalDAV, AFAICT), and an informal protocol called GroupDAV. While CardDAV is an extension to CalDAV which is an IETF spec, GroupDAV is currently an ad-hoc, simple protocol built to let clients interoperate with open source groupware servers, which probably explains both why it’s simple and why only a few servers (including SOGo, of course) support it.
I still need some education as to what relevant standards have to say (even in non-final form) about shared contact lists. More on this topic later I’m sure.

Miscellaneous Cool Things

  • The Mozilla Calendar project released version 0.7 of Sunbird and Lightning. Sunbird is a standalone calendar app kinda like Apple’s iCal, and Lightning is the same functionality as an extension for Thunderbird. This version is miles ahead of where the last (0.5) version was. It’s not finished yet, but it’s definitely usable, and I’ve had the privilege of hanging out in IRC channels and phone calls with some of the people involved, and every time I ask about a specific feature or point out an issue, they come back with a bug # and a place on their roadmap. That project is going really well.

    I believe that Lightning is going to be fundamentally important for Thunderbird’s future. There are at least millions, probably tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people for whom calendaring support in an email client is a sine qua non, and by combining the capabilities of Thunderbird today, Lightning 1.0, and some additional special sauce, I think we’re going to rock.

    I’ll definitely write more about calendaring and collaboration software soon, as I’ve been learning a lot about calendaring, scheduling, and the like, and I’d like to encourage others to join the party.

    Important note to current users of Lightning 0.5: after an upgrade to 0.7 you may need to re-enable the calendars you want to see. Also, if you want access to Google Calendars, you need the 0.3 build of the “Google Provider”.

  • The Mozilla marketing team has come up with a messaging document for Firefox (that’s a standard marketing term, by the way), which identifies three major points: Security, Customization, and my favorite, 100% Organic Software. I’m curious to see how the public at large responds to the notion of organic software. I love creative, gutsy marketing like that. I haven’t thought much about what Thunderbird’s messaging should look like yet — we’ll get to that later.

  • Mozilla Labs launched Prism, which is the new name for the cool “take a web app and make a web app” work Mark Finkle’s been doing. It’s going to be fascinating to see that evolve. I’m keen to see if MailCo can push from the desktop “out” just like Prism is pushing from the webapp “in”. In some ways, that’s what IMAP, CalDAV, CardDAV, LDAP etc. are all about.

Upcoming trip to Paris

I’ll be in Paris, France, from Nov 12 to the 19th. I’ve got a few things scheduled already, but I’d be happy to organize an informal “pot” about Mozilla, MailCo, Thunderbird, or whatever interests.

Oh, and for those of you who don’t know, I’m French (and American (but not Canadian)) and speak French (and English (and am even slowly learning some about the fascinating topic of Quebec profane words)). I don’t think I’m likely to blog in French anytime soon (although I admire people like Loic who manage to blog bilingually) and am only slightly apprehensive at the thought of business negotiations or deep technical talk in my native tongue, given that I’m way behind on the lingo. (In grad school, the idea of giving a scientific talk in French was fairly terrifying). Still, I’ve had a few conversations in French these last few weeks and I think they went ok.

New forums are ready!

Good news! Thanks to cbeard and the folks at Mozilla Labs, I now have placeholder forums where discussion can ensue in a public place, without requiring every post to be approved by me.

For starters, I created three fora: one for Thunderbird Planning, one for discussion of Internet Communications Innovations, and one for random MailCo topics if they come up. We’ll see if those are the right ones as things move along.

I look forward to reading everyone’s contributions there! Feel free to add comments on my blog posts or email me if appropriate, of course.

For people who are new to Thunderbird, you should also check out MozillaZine’s forums, several of which are about Thunderbird — they’re a good place to find day-to-day support and discussions.

Meta comments:

  • The labs forums site was chosen for three simple reasons: 1) it provides RSS feeds, which I see as a requirement, 2) it could be done very quickly with minimal coordination, 3) there’s something experimental about all of this! I’m happy to consider alternatives in the future.
  • I should explain as well why I’m using web-based forums rather than a mailing list or newsgroup. Basically, I believe that newsgroups are too obscure outside of the fairly insular “insider” community, and that mailing lists require too much commitment on the part of participants, whether that’s adding to their email load or requiring them to customize their mail flow to triage mailing list traffic. The market has spoken, and web forums seem to have won when it comes to “level” public discussion spaces (as opposed to blogs). RSS feeds are there for those of us who can’t take yet another destination and need integration.

    (If someone knows how to do a two-way integration between the SMF forums and a mailing list so that everyone can interact with the forums in their favorite way, I’m happy to see how hard that would be to add.)

PS: I have a hard time writing “forums” instead of “fora”, but I’m being good and fitting with the flow!

Instantbird

Here’s something interesting — Florian Queze and Quentin Castier just released Instantbird, which is a XUL application wrapped around libpurple, the library behind Pidgin (once GAIM), Adium, Meebo, and others. There are some licensing issues around doing the same in Thunderbird right now, but it’s nice to see that some people are connecting these various technologies in interesting ways.

“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.

CalDAV good times ahead?

While I wasn’t looking, a bunch of people have been making real progress in standards-based calendaring interop. I’ve been talking to a few of them, and it’s fascinating to see momentum building in that arena. There are clients getting mature (Thunderbird with Lightning, Apple’s iCal in Leopard, Chandler Desktop, Evolution, probably others I’m forgetting or don’t know about). There are servers getting there too (Chandler’s server, Apple’s CalendarServer, Bongo, a couple that I know about but don’t know if I can talk about publicly yet). As far as I can tell, the CalConnect consortium is working, making sure that people play the interop game, even though I’m sure it’s hard work. It would be nice if Google wasn’t so far out in left field, but you can’t have everything.

Nothing like being minority players to get competitors to cooperate on pushing a standard forward!