Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Tag: thunderbird

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.

Whatever happened to the Chandler project?

Years ago, Mitch Kapor invested large sums of money into the OSAF – Open Source Applications Foundation – to come up with a new personal information manager called Chandler. Having burned through the $8 million they got via various means ($5M from Kapor originally), most (all?) of their developers were cut loose early in 2009 as I understand it, leaving the Chandler project – and associated projects – somewhat in limbo.

On a whim, I decided to have a look at the current state of play: turns out Chandler 1.0 is pretty much dead, and the work is now concentrating on re-architecting the software for Chandler 2.0. Having been in a similar position myself with the Bongo project – though I like to think the work we’ve done has been more evolutionary than revolutionary, except where absolutely necessary (e.g., the Hula store not being able to handle concurrency – d’oh!). The pages don’t seem to say why, although I seem to remember Chandler suffering from various pretty severe performance issues (i.e., being unusable).

It also reminds me somewhat of the situation with Mozilla Messaging and Thunderbird 3. MozMess has had a few millions injected into it, and now their developers are on a spree of embedding “search”, databases, bizarre active folder systems, and “conversation view” into Thunderbird – literally every release in version 3 I’ve been using (and I use it as my main client) has been a step backwards for me.

Clearly the injection of substantial money isn’t any particular driver of success; indeed, on the other hand, it seems to have a negative correlation on those (extremely limited) data points. However, without resources to have people develop, it’s difficult to see how to build up enough momentum to make this stuff happen. It is something of a conundrum.

Thunderbird 3

Unlike Jono, whose experiences with Tbird 3 are worth a read, I’ve been a loyal Thunderbird user for a few years now – in fact, we’ve had it deployed at work relatively happily for a while now (I say relatively – the mail client is fine; lack of calendaring is a bit of an issue…). I also tried the Tbird 3 beta recently too, although I think I met with even less success.

For one thing, I was trying this out on the EeePC 901 I have, and for whatever reason, they really didn’t get on at all. I could log into my Bongo mail ok, but the mail box was entirely read-only: no marking read, no moving, no deleting. And the GUI problems just got worse from there – functions which should have been there were just completely missing. I suspect this is to do with either the distro or something I have in my environment; speaking to others, they had much more success, so I plan to try it again in the future.

I also see Tbird as a project with an enormous potential. However, the appearance of Tbird 3 really surprised me, and David Ascher’s blog post on the direction wasn’t something which filled me with a huge amount of confidence. I don’t get some of this at all; a great example is tabs. I just don’t see the value. I can see people lining up mail messages to respond to and that kind of thing, but that seems a really poor UI to my mind. Another example would be the complete Gmail-like effect in the screenshots in that blog: it’s basically Gmail offline, which is fine if that’s what you want, but.. eh.

As a server guy, the “improved search” stuff also worries me. It looks very much like client-side searching, which is fine for personal mailboxes. Once you have a few shared boxes and bigger corporate-level stuff, that starts to become a bad plan very quickly. But it seems to me that the business market is really where Tbird should be aiming: people at home are pretty happy with Gmail and stuff already. I don’t see why they’d want to access Gmail over IMAP.

It will be interesting to see how Tbird 3 turns out. Integrated calendar is absolutely crucial. Hopefully it can all be pulled off without becoming a less business-suitable product. Mozilla Messaging have the resources, but they seem to be trying to take on a lot with this first bite.