Mozilla Looking For a New Home For Thunderbird
Written by Ian Elliot   
Thursday, 28 April 2016

The writing has been on the wall for Mozilla Thunderbird for quite some time. Now Mozilla is actively engaged in the process of getting rid of it. Could Thunderbird spread its wings and have a new lease of life?




Thunderbird is the free, open source email, news and chat client. When, together with Firefox, it first emerged nearly 15 years ago as part of the Mozilla Application Suite it took the revolutionary approach of using HTML and JavaScript. 

Even after Thunderbird and Firefox were turned into separate products, they maintained a common set of underlying software components, based on the Gecko engine, and shared a build and release infrastructure. 

Back in 2012 Mozilla announced it was scaling back Thunderbird development because the continuous effort to extend Thunderbird's feature set was:

unlikely to be a route to expanding the reach and impact of the Mozilla mission.

Since then Mozilla has greatly reduced the deployment of paid resources on Thunderbird, leaving more to the community of volunteers.

In December 2015 in a detailed discussion of the burden Thunderbird places on Mozilla, Mitchell Baker, the Executive Chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and of Mozilla Corporation, stated:

"I believe Thunderbird should would thrive best by separating itself from reliance on Mozilla development systems and in some cases, Mozilla technology." 

Now Mark Surman Mozilla's  Executive Director has followed up with a post on his personal blog that opens with:

Firefox and Thunderbird have reached a fork in the road: it’s now the right time for them to part ways on both a technical and organizational level.

Surman outlines the history that led up to a decision taken jointly in later 2015 by the Mozilla leadership and the Thunderbird Council to put Thunderbird on a path towards technical independence from Firefox to enable it to exist as an independently governed and managed project with no reliance on Mozilla Corporation staff and to look for an:

organizational home that will best allow Thunderbird to thrive as a volunteer-run project.

To deal with this aspect Mozilla hired open source leader Simon Phipps to look at different long-term options for a home for Thunderbird. Phipps' report Finding a home for Thunderbird has now been posted in the Thunderbird Planning online forum.

The options considered included Gnome, which indicated that would not be interested, and the Apache Foundation, which Phipps doesn't consider feasible. Two other alternatives on the "not recommended" list are to form an association with Software In The Public Interest, which wouldn’t offer much in the way of technical support, or to become totally independent by creating a Thunderbird Foundation. 

This leaves three viable options which in reverse order from the report are:

The Mozilla Foundation to become an organizational host for an independent Thunderbird leaving technical management such as project hosting, manage repositories and build, release and downloads as the responsibility of the community.

Move to the Document Foundation which has the advantages of already hosting Libre Offce, having stimulated a commercial ecosystem around Thunderbird and being based in Germany where the largest national community of Thunderbird users is based. Although TDF has given the idea of taking on Thunderbird "an encouraging reception" no decision has been taken. 

Become a member of the US-based Software Freedom Conservancy, which provides services to 33 open source projects including Wine, Samba, phpMyAdmin, Inkscape and Git. It has already agreed to accept Thunderbird and would support the formation of a future independent foundation for it.

It is now up to Mozilla and the Thunderbird council to consider the alternatives. If the move results in the Thunderbird community attracting new volunteers and funders, something Surman says Mozilla is digging in to help make happen, it may be that it can have the better chance at success that is sorely required. 


More Information

Firefox and Thunderbird: A Fork in the Road

Finding a home for Thunderbird (pdf)

Related Articles

Mozilla Gives Up On Firefox OS

The Perils Of Mozilla


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Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 April 2016 )