Is Thunderbird Taking Off?

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I've long been a user and fan of Thunderbird, Mozilla's email client. But there's no doubt that it has been the Cinderella of the family, rather ignored alongside Firefox. With the formation of the separate Mozilla Messaging division, the code has gained a new impetus, and the results are beginning to show.

The first manifestation is Thunderbird 3, recently released. We're talking about a major upgrade, with additions like tabs and improved search. Adding such features is critically important, not so much for themselves as for the message it sends: that Thunderbird is a living project with ambitious plans. Nobody wants to be using a dead-end, scelerotic app.

The other great result is that there are some serious deployments beginning to happen:

The military uses Mozilla's Thunderbird mail software and in some cases the Trustedbird extension on 80,000 computers and it has spread to the ministries of Finance, Interior and Culture.

What's interesting here is the reason why Thunderbird won out over Outlook:

France's military chose open source software after an internal government debate that began in 2003 and culminated in a November 6, 2007, directive requiring state agencies "Seek maximum technological and commercial independence."

The military found Mozilla's open source design permitted France to build security extensions, while Microsoft's secret, proprietary software allowed no tinkering.

People very often overlook this facet of free software, concentrating instead on the free up-front price tag, which is actually far less important, not least because there *are* costs associated with open source, even if they are often lower than for closed-source solutions.

But the real differentiator is the freedom you are given to adapt code for your own needs, as the French military have realised. Maybe the Thunderbird team needs to think about making customisation – be it with extensions, or directly with modifications to the code – even easier for third parties.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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