I sent this link around the Bongo people on Mugshot, and on IRC, but here it is again for the benefit of people watching our planet: the future of Thunderbird seems to be a bit cloudy, Mozilla Corp. seem to have realised that it doesn’t quite fit it.

Primarily, this disappoints me, because I always saw Tbird as a natural fit to the Bongo Project. We’re developing a kick-ass webmail, and that will appeal to a lot of people, but there are other people – like me – who simply don’t use webmail. The business I run uses Thunderbird, and (coupled with Lightning) we’re pretty happy with it, even though there are a lot of rough edges for a business. I had hopes for a Bongo add-on to Tbird which would automatically set it up for you, with your calendars and contacts and stuff, and work well with your server-side config. Ideally, you’d be able to edit your mail filing rules, get the server to mark mail as spam, and setup vacation response.

Plugging into Bongo would also tap Thunderbird into all the stuff we want to do: getting contacts from your social networks, being able to forward web links to your calendar to friends who use webmail, that kind of thing. It would open Thunderbird up.

It does seem, though, that the Thunderbird project is suffering a major identity crisis. Who would use Thunderbird? And, if it needs to stand on it’s own two feet, who’s going to pay for it? Personally, I refuse to cede the mail space to the likes of Gmail: yes, they’re very popular, but for heavens’ sake – email is a huge market, and there is a lot of money to be made there.

I worry that the discussion over the format of the corporation is really hiding the bigger question. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a non-profit or a business, or whether it’s related to Mozilla or not. The key question is, who is Thunderbird for? If it keeps trying to be an Outlook Express-level mailer which people use to access their ISP’s POP3 account or something, frankly, it has no future. That mail usage pattern is pretty simple, dying out, and people are not going to be willing to pay for it.

I further worry what this will do to an already-small Tbird community. How will the Lightning people respond to this? What is Penelope doing? Development has happened behind closed doors at the best of times, to an outsider like me, and I’ve never understood the roadmap. As a long-time Thunderbird user – basically since it was barely usable – I’d like to say it’s come on in leaps and bounds. But, it doesn’t feel like it has. And looking at the roadmap isn’t terribly inspiring: lots of talk about Gecko versions, not much talk about other stuff.

I commented on Mitchell’s blog that I think Thunderbird is too scared of competing with Outlook. Note, competing with doesn’t mean copying: lord knows, we don’t need another Outlook, but Tbird misses out on huge features simply because it won’t integrate with servers. E.g., if you want shared contacts on Tbird, you have to use something like Plaxo – which then ties you into a proprietary service. Tbird simply has to offer more integration: it cannot be it’s own little world on the desktop. Having your own anti-spam is great; not being able to integrate with the training on the server-side sucks. Ditto junk, conversation views, tags. Lightning needs to be a first-class component. Without offering these types of integrations, I don’t see how Tbird can generate revenue: if it needs to be a commercial product, and it sounds like it does, it needs to be something people will pay for.