Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Thunderbird: Fedora & the future

It’s only been a couple of months since I last wrote about the future of Thunderbird, but I’ve been thinking about it again recently. The immediate issue which prompted me to write this was the disturbing news that a potentially bad crasher bug in Thunderbird has gone unfixed in Fedora even though a patch was submitted about a month ago because of sensitivity over trade marks. Although some users on the devel list appear to be dealing out their usual standard of hyperbole on this, it is an extremely difficult position to defend: who knows if the maintainer would have actually released an update by now, but the immediate problem is the mark.

The company I work for moved offices recently, and this also set me thinking about Thunderbird again as we update our e-mail systems. As well as an update breaking one of the add-ons we rely on, there are still basic features missing from this mailer which we need as a business, and doing things like adding good-looking signatures to e-mails is bizarrely difficult and user-unfriendly.

We’re also in the position of still running on Thunderbird 2. We’re there because it’s a reasonable little client, but Thunderbird 3 is not: it comes with bad defaults which need to be switched off, and the search is irritatingly difficult to manage. Every now and then I search and rather than the useful folder filter I get the craptastic separate search tab, which doesn’t work because I’ve turned off Gloda.

Thunderbird 3.1 is supposed to be an easier upgrade for Thunderbird 2 users. Two problems: first, I don’t really believe it, and second, there are now no new Thunderbird 2 releases planned. So we’re now on an unsupported product with only an upgrade to a product we’re unhappy with available.

What would moving to Thunderbird 3 involve for our organisation? Well, primarily, it’s a support issue. We’re distributed (as well as having an office), so we would need to be giving users some kind of training so they could support themselves on the new software (avoiding all the inevitable “Where has button X gone?” type support calls), and ideally we’d want some distribution mechanism so we could control the setup of Thunderbird for our users. Of course, no such stuff is readily available – you can’t even buy it from Mozilla Messaging, the business set up to develop Thunderbird. This seems unbelievable to me; we can’t be the only business who’d be willing to pay for a business-ready Thunderbird distribution.

It’s now getting to the point where we will be making decisions. I can guarantee that we will be testing Evolution on Windows, to evaluate its suitability as a cross-platform client. My misgivings about this before have again centred on commercial support and reliability: however, Evolution has a much, much better business story, a clear development roadmap and solid history of releases.

Evolution would also be an easy sell to our users with the enhanced address book and calendaring support. It doesn’t look amazingly Windows-native to me, but that’s potentially a quite small problem – the main thing is testing it’s reliable.

I would have never thought Evolution would even have been a contender on Windows, but to be honest if we’re not in a position to receive commercial support for either suite, the choice becomes a lot more interesting – and obviously for our Linux users, it’s stable and has a great integration story.

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5 Comments

  1. Bucky

    If you evaluate Evolution on Windows, I’d be really interested to know what you conclude. I looked at it a couple years ago, and it wasn’t ready, stability-wise.

    What frustrates me about Thunderbird is their man-in-a-tower development history. They’ve got a 9-year feature request LDAP read/write capability (shared address books being an enterprise REQUIREMENT), and they screw around playing peek-a-boo with the “reply” button search folders. I’d call that misplaced priorities.

    The reason I’m so frustrated with Thunderbird is that it’s otherwise a FANTASTIC email client. But it’s lack of any kind of address book collaboration is a complete show-stopper.

  2. I can only say that Thunderbird 3 can not be used if you get large amounts of mail per day. I don’t think it scales well.

  3. Alex

    Bucky – totally agree about the LDAP stuff. It’s a really basic pain point for organisations that there’s no out-of-the-box sharing story for the address book.

    I know they talk about the functionality of the various add-ons, but honestly I really wouldn’t want to trust what I consider “core” functionality to an “added extra” which wasn’t being maintained by the same people.

  4. Malcolm

    Unfortunately Evolution (for me on linux) is not an option due to completely unstable ldap implementation.
    This has been around for at least 5 years and has no sign of ever been fixed.
    At the moment kmail is the only option available to anyone that I am aware of.

  5. Thunderbird’s address book is a horrible pain in the butt!

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