Tbird is a software product quite close to my heart: I think it’s important for a number of reasons, not least because it’s one of the few cross-platform mail clients that works well on Windows, and feels comfortable for use in a commercial context. Having Mozilla Foundation spin Thunderbird out to a new commercial entity didn’t fill me with cheer because they were essentially cutting it loose, and Thunderbird 3 didn’t excite me before it was released and hasn’t done since it was released.

Slightly more depressing than all of these, though, are the plans put forward for 2010. Development for 3.1 seems to be about making updates from 2.x less painful, and making some of the features better – all things which 3.0 should have been, in all honesty (upgrading from 2.x to 3.0 has put a number of people I know right off Tbird, to the point they’ve switched to something else). The plans to put Thunderbird on an economically sustainable footing also look staggeringly underdeveloped: Mozilla Messaging has been around since September 2008, and from the look of it there is still absolutely no vision about how this is going to happen. What is going to happen is a series of “experiments”, but it’s not really clear to me how you can judge the potential of a business model on that basis.

My specific worry about this is that by trying a series of experiments, they’re basically going to do a prototype-y half-assed version of each, none will work, and the whole thing will come crumbling down. This is specifically why businesses do market research: they test the market before they develop the product, rather than put effort in a direction which isn’t going to be successful. More than this, ideas for development of Thunderbird have been terribly unexciting so far: more experiments in the “web 2.0” direction may be interesting for some people, but I struggle to see how people are going to pony up for any of this.

There has also been seemingly no effort to bring into the core the crucial Thunderbird feature which pretty much everyone clamours for: the Calendar. Yes, the plugin exists, and yes it’s pretty good. But in all honesty, there is absolutely no way on earth I would deploy that setup in a business right now with Tbird auto-updating itself, because at some point something will go wrong on update and people’s calendar plugin will stop working. So either I turn off updates, or I don’t use the plugin, and the balance doesn’t weigh in favour of the plugin.

Joe Brockmeier has written some thoughts of his own on the economic future, which involves basically setting up as a mail service for people to use Thunderbird against. I would worry it’s a little bit late in the game for that; businesses willing to pay for that kind of thing already have plenty of options available to them and it’s difficult to see how Mozilla Messaging can add significant value in that area without carrying horrendous costs.

My take: personally, I would want to see them focus on deployment and management of Thunderbird. Specifically, that means some kind of management system for Windows-based networks, whereby I can control updates, configure accounts, control user’s settings centrally, etc. That’s something critical to broad deployment of Tbird in large organisations, and doesn’t really exist right now. It would also be something worth paying for.

Whether or not enough “things worth paying for” can be created, though, is an open question. Fundamentally, there is a problem with giving away the client for free: it is a development cost, and in order to recoup that cost you have to create value in ways which wouldn’t be possible without the client. Every business model that doesn’t rely on that client being available for free as leverage doesn’t recoup the cost, it shoulders it. And that is the fundamental problem facing “open source business models”.