On Thunderbird

“Thunderbirds aren’t go” was the initial ungrammatical idea for the title of this post, based on an article in Thursday’s Online Guardian which asked “What future has the Thunderbird email program got?” in light of the departure of the two paid programmers who were working on the project (and discussed on the Guardian technology blog).

I installed Thunderbird a couple of year’s ago with high hopes, as it comes from the same stable as Firefox. I quickly became disillusioned, though, partly because I didn’t like the interface and partly because of various bugs or limitations I encountered, but primarily because of its lack of support for a calendering tool. I soon went back to Outlook, which I use to synch with my PDA and mobile phone.

I had been told that a calendering tool which would complement Thunderbird was on its way – but the Guardian article also mentioned that this product (Sunbird) has been discontinued. This feature has, sadly, been shown to be vapourware.

Has Thunderbird shown itself to be a fad, without even being fashionable (in mainstream circles)? I think this would be an inappropriate response. As Ross Gardler pointed out recently, it can be counter productive to dismiss applications using phrases such as ‘it’s merely fashionable’ or ‘it’s just a passing fad’. Rather, some deeper thinking is needed – and maybe software which fails to become fashionable but works for particular groups in niche areas can have a role to play.

Or perhaps, as Ryan Paul suggests, Thunderbird still has potential to fly despite developers leaving the nest. And interestingly the article suggested that Thunderbird’s focus simple on email might be a barrier and pointed out that the developers “had the team for developing … a stand-alone desktop e-mail application. But we didn’t have the complete set of people to address both that and the larger issues. Without some new impetus, Thunderbird would continue in a status quo pattern.” Thunderbird with a means of integrating with Facebook – now that would be an application I’d like to try out – and could leave Outlook in the dust.

Speculation, open to discussion, I feel. What is less open to dispute is that the success of the FireFox browser has not been replicated in the email environment. And we do need to have decision making and selection criteria which recognises that success in one area does not necessarily guarantee success in another.  Time to update the QA Focus document on “Top Tips For Selecting Open Source Software“.


  1. There is a calendering tool for Thunderbird, called Lightning. It works very nicely, though it is a little primitive. There’s no synching to mobile phones or PDAs though.

  2. I use Thunderbird and I used to use the Calendar plugin before I moved to Google Calendar. The Calendar plugins can use a remote calendar via WebDAV which in theory you could sync with your PDA’s calendar, but I’ve never found a reliable way. I, along with thousands of others, are also waiting for Google to offer Mobile/PDA sync to come along. Maybe that will come with the Google Phone…

  3. I like Thunderbird and I use it alongside various other mail applications.

    However I do just use it just for e-mail, not needing a combined calendar functionality, for calendering I use a different application.

    I would ask is it important that an e-mail application has a calendar functionality, or is it just that we expect there to be one because Outlook has one?

  4. Sunbird, the Mozilla calendar project in alive and well.

    Lightning the Thunderbird calendar plugin based on Sunbird is alive and well.

    Syncing with various devices and apps is alive and well through various tools, such as BirdieSync for PocketPC and iCal publishing.

    Then there is the recent Mozilla announcement that they are about to get serious about Thunderbird development.

    It would, of course, be better if it were all in a single download for the average user, but the situation is not as bleak as the Guardian claims. Hopefully, the US$3 million seed funding from Mozilla will do something about this.

  5. A little FUD here.

    The developers left Thunderbird but Mozilla have spun it out as a standalone company and given it millions of dollars support in order to revitalise the desktop mail ecosystem in the same way that Firefox did from the Mozilla project. Both of the developers have left have said that they will remain on the project as unpaid volunteers.

    I happily use Thunderbird on my desktop at work, sync it with both Google Calendar and my phone. The claim of “vapourware” is absolutely wrong. Sunbird 0.7 will be out later this month and the Thunderbird version, Lightning, typically follows a few weeks later. check here for more details: http://www.mozilla.org/projects/calendar/

    Oh, the Thunderbird plugin “Provider” gives you GooCal sync. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/addon/4631

    In summary: what Ross said 😉

  6. Hi Ross, Phil
    Thanks for the info.
    Your comments seem to refute the article in the Guardian. Perhaps it would be worthwhile responding to them – it will be interesting to see next week’s letters’ column.

  7. I’m not nearly as optimistic as Phil and Ross (I wonder if they also regard Microsoft press releases as complete 100% truth as they seem to do with Mozilla press releases?). I’ve been following Mozilla for many years and one thing I have come to realise that is very much proven there, is “in open source, the code is open, the politics is not”.

    The future of Thunderbird in my opinion is quite bleak – Mozilla have kicked them out into a seperate corporation and given them $3 million. That might sound a lot initially, but when you start to add up the costs and take into account they currently have no revenue stream, its not enough really for much more than 3 years funding. If they really were dedicated to it, really wanted it to “revitalise the desktop mail ecosystem”, they didn’t need to spin it out and could have given it access to the substantial funding Firefox brings in. It really does look like paying to get rid of a bad smell.

    Ultimately, the world has moved on in many ways from Thunderbird. For the average consumer it is too heavy because web clients, especially since AJAX came into the mainstream, offer everything they need. And for businesses (Universities are not typical, merely been slower to pick up on the likes of Exchange/Collaboration Suite), it is too light, and most of them use PIMs like Outlook or Evolution and, simply, tacking on a crap calendar to Thunderbird does not turn Thunderbird into a PIM. If they want to turn it into a PIM, they should recode it from the ground up.

  8. If memory serves, Firefox and Thunderbird were partly a move away from the integrated client suite that was ‘Mozilla’ before them….

  9. Sadly for Mark, I don’t just read press releases, I do some pretty good research into what the direct impact of these two guys no longer working for Mozilla Co. but still committing to TB means.

    I do think the general outlook for Thunderbird is reasonably miserable, but I don’t think either of the new announcements significantly changes that in any way.


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