Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Tag: tbird

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.

Thunderbird & calendars

When the new “MailCo” (as it was at the time) was announced, the first thing they did was poll people on what changes they should be looking to make to Thunderbird as kick-ass as possible – you can see from the initial launch blog post that integrated calendaring was item #1 on a list of new features.

Now, only one year on, the word is that calendaring won’t be integrated or bundled at all – in fact, it gets worse, because the calendar developers have also announced that a number of full-time developers have been lost. Doesn’t say why, but I’m assuming you can blame the Global Downturn™.

I can’t express what a huge mistake I think this is for Thunderbird. One of the main reasons I got involved with Bongo was to provide a calendar server for my day job’s choice of mail client (Tbird), and when Jonny produced his CalDAV code things were really looking pretty sweet.

The problem for me comes down to basically one of maintenance. Extensions that you can install are great, but they have a tendency to bit-rot and suffer versioning issues. Even on Firefox you have issues with a version upgrade making an existing extension wobble or fall over; and with Tbird3 being developed at a more rapid pace, there is a real problem there.

The calendar devs can only concentrate on one thing, and it seems like that one thing has to be a plug-in. In my opinion, a non-working calendar in Tbird3 ought to be a release blocker, but that is now off the table. I have to say, if Evolution on w32 was a viable option, I think that’s where we’d be looking right now, but I’m going to reserve judgement until Tbird3 releases.