Firefox is a roaring success, and a program that is widely recognised as the pacesetter for browsers. Mozilla's associated email program, Thunderbird, by contrast, is the poor relation of the family – appreciated by a hard core of fans, but largely ignored outside that small group. That's always struck me as a pity and a real missed opportunity: surely the same principles that have made Firefox so successful could be applied to Thunderbird?
Fortunately, Mozilla seems to have woken up the possibilities, and recently appointed David Ascher as head of a new subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, focused on email and internet communications. That subsidiary, now has a name: it's to be known as Mozilla Messaging, and it has a shiny new website and mission to match:
We subscribe to the Mozilla Manifesto. Furthermore, we believe that email is the killer app of the Internet, a vital tool in modern society, and one which has not evolved as much or as fast as it should have. We're driven to improve the experience of people communicating with each other on the Internet.
Our first tool in this endeavor is the Mozilla Thunderbird email client, which is already in use by millions of people worldwide. Using a collaborative, participatory process, we will work to make Thunderbird the most useful, enjoyable communications tool possible. It's a huge challenge, but we believe that by finding like-minded people who want to help, we can have a real impact, and have a lot of fun doing it.
In order to provide as many opportunities for participation as possible, we strive to be open and transparent in our operations.
In his blog posting announcing this move – well worth reading for the information it gives about the bigger picture for this new organisation – Ascher also provides some details of what's coming in Thunderbird 3:
We’ve started defining what Thunderbird 3 will be, because we think that there is enough consensus to make some of the first decisions on the most important changes to tackle first. Specifically, Thunderbird 3 will build on the great base that is Thunderbird 2 (and the work already performed in trunk by the current and past contributors), and add some key features, such as:
integrated calendaring (building on the great work done by the Mozilla Calendar team and their Lightning add-on to Thunderbird),
better search facilities,
and a set of other user interface improvements.
Business users will rejoice at the first of these: the absence of integrated calendaring has been one of the biggest obstacles to widespread deployment in the enterprise. Just as Firefox needed to match and then surpass Internet Explorer before it started to gain widespread acceptance, so Thunderbird needs to offer a drop-in replacement for Microsoft's Outlook. Thunderbird 3 sounds like it's moving in that direction.
Other good news is that Mozilla Messaging intends to live up to its name by taking a broad view of what messaging means:
it’s important to keep an eye on larger trends. Email is more important than ever, and yet it’s no longer the only game in town, or even the dominant one for younger generations or emerging economies. It is worthwhile considering what the right user experience could be for someone using multiple email addresses, multiple instant messaging systems, IRC, reading and writing on blogs, using VoIP, SMS, and the like. What parts of those interactions make sense to integrate, and where? I don’t believe that stuffing all of those communication models inside of one application is the right answer. But the walled gardens that we’re faced with today aren’t the right answer either. There is room for innovation and progress here, and we need to facilitate it.
I think this is an important move not just for the Thunderbird project but for open source. Firefox has shown that Microsoft can be matched and beaten not just on the server side, as Apache has done for years, but also on the client side; OpenOffice.org is fast gaining acceptance as a good drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office in all but a few specialist cases. What open source needs now to move forward on the desktop is a top-class email/calendaring client to complete the trio of must-have apps. The new Mozilla Messaging might finally be the organisation to do just that.