Thunderbird — Differences

July 30th, 2007

In my last post I described the profound difference in impact between the Thunderbird and Firefox projects. This goes beyond the 10 or 20 to 1 difference in size of userbase. It also includes Firefox’s effect on openness and innovation in general. I described how this causes the relative prioritization between Thunderbird and Firefox to be severely skewed towards Firefox and why I believe it will remain that way.

This could perhaps be OK if the two products were very similar, so that work on one was intimately related to the other. We have found this not to be the case.

The two are complementary products for a set of users, but much less so in development. There are a number of reasons. The products are different, the userbase is different, the international aspects are different. Tristan described this nicely already, so I’ll be brief.

The products have large areas that are not as similar as one might think. Thunderbird uses the underlying Mozilla platform of course. So do many other products. But Thunderbird is intimately tied to IMAP and POP, specialized areas fundamentally different from the core of the web. So the technical relationship between Thunderbird and browsing is actually less obvious than the overlap between Firefox and all sorts of other products that are fundamentally about the web — video viewers, web based music programs, to name a few. Testing and QA are also different.

Perhaps even more fundamental, the world is still moving new things into the browser platform, but many consumers are moving away, have already moved away or may never use stand-alone desktop email.

  • Web mail usage grows. Younger generations in particular use other techniques.
  • There are many parts of the world where email is less common than in the US, Western Europe or Japan. For example, in parts of the world where Internet cafés are a major way of accessing the Internet desktop email is not the norm. There is a serious question of whether these folks will ever move to mail, or if other options, either web and / or mobile based will always supplant email as we know it.
  • Thunderbird is much closer to an enterprise product. Development may still focus on what’s useful to an individual. But given the consumer adoption of webmail, enterprises are a significant source of interest in desktop email. Yet there remains debate about the Thunderbird roadmap, which does not include calendar as the key feature. I’d like to see a structure that promotes maximal feedback between the Thunderbird team and the userbase, and believe a focused organization focused is a better place.

This doesn’t make mail unimportant. It does reduce the degree to which the same development organization can excel at both products.

15 comments for “Thunderbird — Differences”

  1. 1

    karit said on July 30th, 2007 at 11:37 pm:

    Yes I also Thunderbird as an enterprise and need partnerships along those lines. Wrote a bit more about TB on my blog

  2. 2

    LorenzoC said on July 31st, 2007 at 1:14 am:

    “Perhaps even more fundamental, the world is still [moving new things into the browser] platform, but many [consumers] are moving away, have already moved away or may never use stand-alone desktop email.”

    “Younger generations [see “consumers”] in particular use other techniques”.

    Etc, etc.

    Ok, now I understand the whole picture. I guess since I am not moving new things into the browser, I am not a consumer, I am not moving away, I have always used desktop mail client and I am not “young generation”, I am not part of the Mozilla vision any more.

    It seems me and Mozilla are going in different directions and It is time to say goodbye.

    And yes, I am upset and I do belive you are wrong. These are the usual “new economy” plans like big companies investing in SecondLife then get disappointed because it is wasted money.

    Time will tell.

  3. 3

    Eddy Nigg said on July 31st, 2007 at 1:23 am:

    This is my personal view and vision for Thunderbird:

    Thunderbird 3 has tabs! Testing can be done from the nightly builds:

    Now we can have the Email stuff in one tab, calendar in the next, IM in
    another one…and all I really need is…Firefox in the following tabs.
    Seriously! How many times have I the sidebar open on Firefox? Almost
    never…On Thunderbird I have the sidebar always open with various
    stuff. All I want is access the various email accounts, choose my
    contacts and a) send a mail, b) chat with a contact, c) send a SMS, d)
    organize my tasks and events, e) view the schedule of others…oh and
    yes, I want to browse the Internet. I want to do that from within

    Having said sidebar, I want to have a small Googlebar there as well. I
    use Google search a lot and it’s good for revenues 😉 . Never mind how
    we call this…Thunderfox or Firebird, one thing is clear to me:
    Thunderbird is indispensable! So is Firefox!

  4. 4

    Mitchell Baker said on July 31st, 2007 at 2:59 am:


    My post explicitly says that mail is important. It was descriving why having the same people (other than the thunderbird developers who work only on thunderbird) try to go between prodjects is hard, and why the important of even something like mail is currently overshadowed and how we are trying to find ways to address that.


  5. 5

    Mitchell Baker said on July 31st, 2007 at 3:06 am:


    I agree about the tabs. Actually, I use a special build of Thunderbird that has tabs in it and have for a year or two. I find them extremely useful. I am eagerly waiting to see this feature land in the main Thunderbird builds so that it is automatic and available to everyone. I believe that David is reimplementing this feature now. I’m not sure of the timeframe for its arrival but you could ask David.

    On the Googlebar, you’ll need to get that from

  6. 6

    Chris Jones said on July 31st, 2007 at 4:21 am:

    To my mind, Thunderbird should intentionally go after the enterprise market.
    For years now the world has been desperate for an alternative to Exchange&Outlook (if only because of the pricetag).
    Most of the pieces exist to make this happen, it just needs an interested party with some cash to integrate everything and push it over the finish line with an eye to open standards so anyone else can integrate support for it.
    I would have thought this is exactly the kind of thing Mozilla Foundation could excel at – it has one highly successful product and some others that are under-engineered. It also has a stack of cash and buckets of mindshare.

  7. 7

    Heinz said on July 31st, 2007 at 6:25 am:

    Email, like we use it today is a dead end. When Firefox wasn’t widespread the www has also been dead. Firefox changed the internet and smoothed the way for web 2.0.
    But Thunderbird is still a “old” email client with no innovation. How can somebody expect a big and young userbase?

    There are many things that are possible to improve, ranging from blog-integration to connections with social sites (and from there could also come the money). Perhaps even instant messenger or p2p-sharing (like allpeers) would be usefull. There are many possibilites. Thunderbird needs to develop and become a communications center, then it could become even to Firefox. But with email only Thunderbird wont win the cup.

    With few resources and cut of from the main community the future looks dark for Thunderbird.

  8. 8

    Karel Koubek said on July 31st, 2007 at 7:51 am:

    I don’t get it,
    Firefox adoption still rises, globally accounting for about 15% (more than 20% in Europe). Aren’t we already approaching the critical mass needed to push open standards?
    If so, why focus on Firefox even more and get rid of the manifold projects under the Mozilla umbrella that were there from the beginning?

    From my point of view, if it’s not about revenue (as you repeatedly reassured us), it certainly is about market share. In two of your blogs you reminded how many millions of users use this or that product (or the ratio between them) as one of your arguments.

    Mitchell, do you think that this sort of mindset would get Mozilla to where it is nowadays?

    You like to use the word ecosystem. You’ll certainly agree with me, that strong focus on one member of the family at the expense of others can only hurt the variety and ecosystem of Mozilla projects and actually what *Mozilla* is.

  9. 9

    Asa Dotzler said on July 31st, 2007 at 8:50 pm:

    “Aren’t we already approaching the critical mass needed to push open standards?”

    Do we have enough influence today, through Firefox marketshare, to promote and preserve choice and innovation on the internet? I’d say no. What is that number? My view is about twice what we have now and then we have to show that we can hold it. We’ve got our foot in the door and that’s great but we and the web are far from “safe”

    Just my views.

    – A

  10. 10

    Baptiste said on August 1st, 2007 at 6:14 am:

    I fail to see how IMAP is farther from the “core of the web” than internet music programs. IMAP is important for the openness of the Internet, beeing the most currently use open protocol for the exchange of user data. This is basically a freedom problem. Do you want a web where users control their own data, where interoperability for data exists, where users can switch providers. Or do you prefer them to be tied to Google or Microsoft. It looks like the MoFo is not willing to help users protect their freedom from the oh so cool bounds of webmail. This is why you get well deserved criticism from the rest of the free software community.

  11. 11

    Asa Dotzler said on August 1st, 2007 at 10:36 am:

    Bapiste, IMAP, POP and SMTP are not in jeopardy. They are long documented standards with literally hundreds of high-quality implementations competing and innovating all the time. They are used by the overwhelming majority of people doing email and while a few big webmail companies are growing, with Hotmail and Yahoo in the lead, we’re not really in a position with Thunderbird to force them to be more open. We can, with Firefox, lead them in the right direction by offering features like off-line support and others.

  12. 12

    Jason said on August 1st, 2007 at 10:22 pm:

    It is absolutely clear that there is nothing anyone could do or say to even get this gentleman to even consider alternatives to his judgement. It is set in stone. Too bad, as it is his loss.

    One thing I am really concerned with is the fact that just this last year, Eudora came to be somehow a part of the Mozilla projects, just in time for them to dump it off on someone else, or in politically correct corporate terms, divest it.

  13. 13

    Wayne Mery said on August 2nd, 2007 at 4:47 am:

    “… Eudora came to be somehow a part of the Mozilla projects, just in time for them to dump it off on someone else, …”

    Eudora also came with 4+ full time paid developers, still employed by Qualcomm iirc, for a significant period of time to effect the transition.

  14. 14

    jigar shah said on August 2nd, 2007 at 11:34 am:

    Hi mitchel
    Don’t you think fury of people is because of overall outlook of mozilla rather than because of your email call to action ?

    what Eddy Nigg says does make sense. We have plenty of scope for evolving for enterprise. We don’t want Exchange / Outlook stuff on system. And about Youngster’s using other way to communicate (I understand social networking:))..can we have Something like “extension” for tht ? Like gmail ?
    About “People not using desktop client”…
    Internet in rest of the world is not really broadband. And there are limitation of online Web 2.0 Email clients. They are not perfect and do not have enough flexibility. All of them have some limitation tht cannot be ignored. And feature addition is not really easy. And most importantly…they do not follow “Open email” most of them ask for “pay for premium service”

    “Thunderbird is much closer to an enterprise product.”
    Thts true and don’t you see revenue coming up from there ? A branded TB ? Or enterprise Addressbook with synchronisation ? A Task management with calender feature ?

  15. 15

    eamon fitzpatrick said on August 21st, 2007 at 2:04 am:

    We would love to use thunderbird as an enterprise type product. In fact I just evaluated it (again) and it failed due to a lack of hide deleted items in IMAP folders and no auto dial/hang for dial up. On the plus side lightning/sunbird is getting extremely good (but can causes major screen space problems, has poor syncML support and should not post items to unticked calenders).

    Our organisation could financially contribute (in our small way) to thunderbird/lightining/sunbird if it did the above but it cant so we cant(chicken and egg)

    On the subject of webmail, our organisations email system (mdeamon) offers it and even though its done very well everybody uses outlook express/outlook. I use thunderbird at home as do my parents and sisters HOWEVER the kids use web mail and instant messaging. I think the web mail usage is probably appropriate due to casual use (same for on-line only calendering)however local clients tend to make the whole process so much quicker/smoother (unless you use outlook 2007..slllooooowww).

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