Thunderbird, how the open email client that looks to the future is changing

Thunderbird, how the open email client that looks to the future is changing

In the all-cloud era, there is still a large segment of users who appreciate traditional ones client email, especially if modern, updated and equipped with all the features to manage your email archives. As we saw in the article on the differences between webmail and email clients, traditional email management programs are still appreciated. For one thing, because they allow you to manage multiple email accounts through the same interface rather than forcing the user to keep multiple browser tabs open at the same time.

Thunderbird it is certainly one of the most popular software for managing email, one of the most “popular” alternatives to Outlook. Born at the end of 2004 under the best auspices, the application had to deal with a life cycle rather uncertain, especially when Mozilla realized that the costs of keeping the project alive had become unsustainable.

Yet, almost 20 years later, Thunderbird is still alive and well. Indeed, some good choices could really make its development sustainable.

The Thunderbird story: from an uncertain past to a sustainable future

Ryan Sipesresponsible for MZLA Technologies Corporationthe organization responsible for developing Thunderbird under the direct control of the Mozilla Foundation, recently took stock of the open source email client, explaining what has changed in recent years and providing some previews of the future of the application.

Sipes says he began working full-time on Thunderbird in November 2017. However, we cannot talk about the Mozilla email client unless we “rewind the tape” to 2012, when Thunderbird went from a project financed and developed by Mozilla Corporation to a community-led project.

One of the most important problems that have marked the existence of Thunderbird is the fact that the program, despite being a much loved product with over 20 million users, had no substantial revenue that could support its development. Whoever managed such a large project was forced to bear the cost of development, maintenance, fixes and distribution of the software. There have been some attempts to make the sustainable project (for example, Mozilla Messaging), but in the end they didn’t work.

Surviving with a truly bare-bones development team

While Thunderbird could count millions of active users, on the other hand it could not count on economic lifeblood. In 2017, Sipes says, with donations from users, it was possible to hire three people: a developer, an infrastructure manager and a Community Manager. The team was far too small for the tasks to handle. But that’s it.

Sipes says: “to say that that period was challenging would be an understatement. Thunderbird was maintained by a skeleton crew. There were long periods where we couldn’t even compile the software. Additionally, there was no real organization or guidance as to where we were trying to go. There were conflicting ideas within the community, and it seemed difficult to reach a consensus“.

With the threat of an imminent abandonment of the project Thunderbird, the makers of the mail client developed a roadmap and they tried to ferry the project out of the swamp. “It was still a little chaotic“, admits Sipes, “but it was a more organized chaos“.

From that moment on, the Thunderbird team began to highlight that active user support, with free funding, was needed to keep the project alive. It worked and the support received allowed us to start a total reorganization.

Under the wing of MZLA Technologies Corporationthe team working on Thunderbird was much better organized and was able to solve many of the problems that made development so difficult.

The new challenge of creating email clients for Android and iOS

When Thunderbird started to rear its head, we started to do things a little bigger. Thus, the team tried to lay the foundation for the development of an “open” email client for Android. Even the third party application K-9 Mail for Android faced a sustainability challenge, exactly like the one Thunderbird had faced not long before.

So the Thunderbird team and the author of K-9 decided to join forces to create a version of Thunderbird for Android based on the K-9 Mail engine.

Although it has been talked about since at least mid-2022, the new email client for Android is not yet ready. However, Sipes reveals that the game is almost over: “We will soon launch Thunderbird for Android, built on the excellent foundation of K-9 Mail, which the team has built and continues to improve“.

Thunderbird per Android it will be ready to debut by January 2024. Work to port will begin next year Thunderbird su iOS.

New foundation for the Thunderbird of the future

The head of the Thunderbird project says that the nickname Supernova assigned to release 115 is inspired by a “cosmic explosion”: “we knew we would have to blow some things up and rebuild them“. The code underlying Thunderbird’s operation was in fact now 20 years old and largely shared that of the Firefox browser.

Such prehistoric code made it extremely difficult to fix persistent bugs or add new features. Often a small change would break something in a completely different part of the application, and it would take a long time to figure out why.

The email client developers therefore started a process of rebuilding some fundamental parts of Thunderbird (most of the user interface, the message list and the email message display areas,…) This procedure gave rise to a Thunderbird’s “futurization” path to look to the next 20 years.

And Sipes also throws a “dig” at the well-known names: “the largest providers are creating features and tools that only work within their walled gardens. They talk about privacy but still retain access to all user messages. They make it increasingly difficult to use clients like Thunderbird because they want users to exclusively use their apps to make money“.

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