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Mozilla should continue developing Thunderbird

Column There is more work to be done
Fri Jul 20 2012, 15:05

tuxABOUT TEN DAYS AGO Mozilla's chief lizard wrangler Mitchell Baker announced that the open source outfit will stop active development of Thunderbird, its excellent email client. I hope it will reconsider that decision somewhat, and continue to develop Thunderbird in at least a couple of areas.

Baker said in a blog post, "Much of Mozilla's leadership - including that of the Thunderbird team - has come to the conclusion that on-going stability is the most important thing, and that continued innovation in Thunderbird is not a priority for Mozilla's product efforts." The result of Mozilla's decision, according to Baker, will be to decouple Thunderbird from development of the Firefox web browser, and move the email client into Extended Support Release (ESR) status, where it will receive only security updates.

I agree that stability is essential in email client software. While I have my email archives backed up six ways from Sunday, and I suspect that many other people also do as well, there are always those users who never give backup a thought, and no one wants to ever have to recover their email database and risk losing anything.

And it's encouraging to hear that Thunderbird will still get security updates - indeed it was just updated to ESR version 10.0.6 along with Firefox 10.0.6 - and that Mozilla will still accept contributions to Thunderbird from community developers.

Admittedly, Thunderbird likely doesn't need to track the rapid pace of Firefox development, however there are still some needed features and areas of enhancement that I'd like to see Mozilla continue to develop and deliver in Thunderbird.

For example, the Thunderbird client running under Linux doesn't match Evolution when it comes to picking up system generated output such as that produced by cron jobs.

Evolution allows the user to specify a local file as an email source, rather than an email server, which makes it easy to get those system generated emails.

In contrast, Thunderbird insists on connecting to an email server running on the same machine to do the same thing.

I don't mind running Postfix to route system generated emails to a local file in /var/spool/mail, but I should not have to run an instance of the Dovecot email server just to collect my cron job output, and I suspect that setting up and running Dovecot is a bit more than some novice Linux users can handle. Please fix this oversight, Mozilla, since it can't be all that difficult to code.

As long as Mozilla doesn't change its backend email database formats and management software code, I don't think any users will object to making such minor enhancements.

I imagine there are also some other small additions and enhancements that Thunderbird users would like to see, but which Mozilla hasn't managed to learn about in its communications with its Thunderbird user base. With all due respect, that is Mozilla's fault, not primarily the fault of its users.

There is also another area where significant work remains to be done in Thunderbird - email encryption. Email encryption is still handled by the Enigmail plug-in, and that needs to be more tightly integrated into the base product. Using PGP encryption in Thunderbird is easier than it used to be, but more remains to be done.

There's also spam filtering. Thunderbird could make it easy for users to run a local copy of Spamassassin in the email client, for example.

Development in those areas should continue, I think, and the Thunderbird code base is complicated enough to require Mozilla to oversee that development, even if it doesn't do all of the coding. Perhaps Mozilla can split Thunderbird into a stable production release for the majority of users and a development release for others interested in exploring areas of continuing enhancement, and continue developing visionary features that way.

Therefore, I hope Mozilla will consider continuing Thunderbird development, perhaps at a lower priority than high profile work on Firefox, in order to address these areas that I've mentioned, as well as others like them. µ


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