Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Tag: gnome

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.

First attempt with Gnome Shell

As part of doing some testing of the upcoming Fedora 12 release, I decided to put it on my EeePC 901 netbook. I had a feeling it would be relatively well supported, and indeed the installation was extremely smooth. I was going to also test the work Peter has been doing on the Moblin packages, but instead I got detoured into Gnome-Shell: my Fedora 12 laptop runs Nouveau (no 3D for me!) and my desktop is ATi but not Fedora 12 yet.

In a word: wow. For what is supposed to be a technical preview for Gnome 3.0 which, we should remember, is about a year away, this is a remarkably polished bit of software. The simple black borders looked a bit basic in screenshots but in use the understated nature of the interface actually looks a bit classy. The Applications menu and particularly the side panel are a bit rough looking, but I don’t have the side panel turned on.

The workspace metaphor is taking me a bit of time to get used to; it’s quite similar to the Gnome 2 system but has slight differences. I’ve had a bit of trouble launching apps in the way I want, but I keep discovering new features to it (e.g., dragging and dropping the app into the workspace) which give me better ways of doing things. Not being able to access applets from the Activities page is also a bit odd, but eh.

What is particularly praiseworthy, I feel, is that even though it doesn’t appear to be designed particularly with netbooks in mind – unlike, for example, Moblin – it does seem to work really well. I’ve put the Chromium browser on there as well, to save screen real estate, and the combination is much better than the relatively-stock Ubuntu I had on before.

Although there aren’t really any new features compared to Gnome 2, everything seems to be placed in a smarter way, and in particular I could see non-technical users using these workspaces and actually “getting it”. I suspect a lot of what’s remaining is really “small scale” stuff – the polish which really makes things sing. I noticed odd problems with windows not popping up when they should occasionally, and stuff like that – or clicking a link and having it appear on a browser in another workspace with no notification. These are the small fit-and-finish pieces which make an application great, though.