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2/19/2008
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Thunderbird Gets A New Home At Mozilla Messaging

A new organization called Mozilla Messaging thinks e-mail is broken and aims to fix it.

Mozilla's Thunderbird open-source e-mail application has a new nest. David Ascher on Monday was CEO of MailCo, an organization with a placeholder name charged with Thunderbird's future development. Today, he is the CEO of Mozilla Messaging, the newest subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation.

Mozilla Messaging begins with the proposition that e-mail is broken. The organization's goal is to fix it.

"E-mail and other forms of Internet communications present us with a paradox," Ascher said in a blog post on Tuesday. "The stunning proportion of our days spent communicating online clearly indicates that as a society, we are more intricately connected via the internet than ever before. ... Yet as the number of such interactions grows, and as the number of ways in which we interact grows, the joy that communication can bring is too often replaced by frustration, confusion, or stress. Furthermore, as we transmit more and more digital data, privacy and control questions become more and more troublesome."

Mozilla Messaging won't be alone in its efforts to improve e-mail. It wants help from those who believe that communication online can be better. "E-mail is broken," said Ascher. "What are you going to do about it?"

Mozilla Messaging aims to build a community of open-source developers to do for e-mail what Firefox has done for Internet browsers. Its initial focus will be developing Thunderbird 3, which is slated for beta release in 2Q (without calendaring) and in 3Q (with calendaring). In a phone interview, Ascher cautioned that Thunderbird milestones will be released when they're ready.

The third iteration of Thunderbird will include an integrated calendar, improved search capabilities, easier configuration, and a variety of user interface improvements that will support a better RSS feed reading experience, for example.

Ascher's first order of business is to bring in more users. "Thunderbird's impact is proportional to its user count," he said in a post last month in the Mozilla Developer Forums. "Thus driving adoption is my primary concern. Our current user base is very significant (many millions of mostly quite satisfied users), but the number of possible users of Thunderbird is orders of magnitude greater than our current reach."

But Mozilla Messaging faces at least three significant challenges: a less dominant Microsoft, the fact that e-mail clients, unlike Internet browsers, don't look like much of a platform at the moment, and the absence of an obvious source of revenue.

In the absence of the marauding Microsoft of the mid-1990s, Thunderbird is likely to have a hard time inspiring its legions with the evangelical zeal that made Firefox such a success. The desktop e-mail client market may still be dominated by Microsoft, but it isn't frozen in time the way the browser market was when Firefox debuted. And to further complicate matters, e-mail for many is moving from desktop applications to browser-based services, not to mention the mobile phone.

Ascher concedes things are different now but he remains convinced that Thunderbird's developers have real issues to address. "The situation is quite different and the ways that we can succeed will be quite different in ways that I can't explain just yet," he said. "People complain about having too much information to manage. While the competitive landscape is different, there's an incredible amount of frustration on the part of hundreds of millions of people around with world in how they handle messaging."

Ascher points to the ongoing investment in messaging companies as a sign that the problem hasn't been solved yet. Indeed, Microsoft's desire to acquire Yahoo is driven in no small part by Yahoo Mail and Zimbra, the messaging company Yahoo bought last year.

As for Thunderbird's platform prospects, Ascher expects that over time Thunderbird will become integrated with a variety of Internet services and that developers will add value by creating extensions.

Revenue, Ascher said, is not something he's spending a lot of time thinking about at the moment. His first priority is building the best product possible. He also said he don't expect Thunderbird to step on Firefox's toes by striking ad revenue deals for Internet searches. "The chance of our being at odds with Firefox is quite slim," he said, adding that search can do more than drive ad revenue. "We think that getting a handle on your e-mail is a huge problem and we think that search is a huge tool for that."

Ultimately, Ascher believes that Thunderbird's tale will be told by those who get involved. "The big story is going to come with the people who want to join forces with us," he said.

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