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An Untold History of Thunderbird

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Selfie of Ryan Sipes in front of trees with yellow and orange leaves.
Ryan Sipes, Product and Business Development Manager

Hi, my name is Ryan Sipes and I run product and business development at MZLA Technologies Corporation, the subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation that develops Thunderbird. I have been working on Thunderbird for my day job since November of 2017. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but looking at the calendar I see that it has been six years this month. A lot has happened in that time and Thunderbird is in a much different place than it was when I started. I’ve seen multiple people online share accounts of “the Thunderbird story,” and each time I’ve thought “that’s really great, but they missed some important parts.” It’s not their fault, we’ve simply never shared the whole story. So today, I thought I’d sit down and write that.

To tell the story correctly, we must go back to 2012. That’s when Thunderbird began to transition from a project that was funded and developed by the Mozilla Corporation, to a community run project. The reasons behind that move were sound and made sense given the state of the project at the time.

One of the biggest issues for Thunderbird throughout its life is that, while it was a well-loved product with over 20 million users, it never had any substantial revenue that could adequately cover its development. So, whomever managed the incredibly large project had to simply eat the cost of developing, maintaining, fixing, and distributing the software. A few attempts were made to make the project sustainable (Mozilla Messaging, for example) but they ultimately didn’t work.

Surviving With A Skeleton Crew

By the time I joined in 2017, Thunderbird lived in the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation and was governed by the Thunderbird Council, an elected group of contributors to the project. At some point, a Thunderbird donation form was set up and donations were high enough to hire 3 people. A developer was hired, someone else to keep the infrastructure running, and a Community Manager (me). The team was way too small for the task at hand (by contrast, we now have 29 people working on Thunderbird). Shortly after being hired, I joined the Thunderbird Council and acted as its Treasurer for many years.

To say that this period was challenging would be an understatement. Thunderbird was being maintained by a skeleton crew. There were long stretches where we couldn’t even get the software to build. On top of that, there was no real organization or guiding vision for where we were trying to go. In fact, there were competing ideas within the community, and a consensus looked difficult to reach.

Throughout the first couple of years that I was around, I was acting as the Treasurer for the project and kept thinking, “we’ve got 20,000,000 users who rely on Thunderbird every day – is an application with that many users really going to just die? We really need to tell our users that we need their support.” 

The project simply wasn’t on a sustainable path, and a few of us suspected it was only a matter of a few years until Thunderbird would be unmaintainable.

Asking For Help

So we defined a vision, made a roadmap, and focused our work. It was still kind of chaotic, but it was more organized chaos. At the same time, I worked with the team on how best to convey the message that we needed the support of our users. It started with updates to the familiar Start Page that shows inside Thunderbird. Then we tried letting folks know when they downloaded the software that “Thunderbird is supported by donations from our users. Please consider giving to keep Thunderbird alive” (not the exact wording, but that was the spirit of the message). 

Eventually, we showed an in-app donation appeal to all our users explaining that we truly need their support if Thunderbird is going to stay around. Each time we tried to be honest about our need, and tasteful about how and when we asked.

Thunderbird's current Start Page, displayed when opening the software. It shows various links to donate, get support, report bugs, and contribute

And… It actually worked! Our users donated to help Thunderbird and we continued to get more organized. Eventually our team grew large enough that it made sense to move to our own organization, the aforementioned MZLA Technologies Corporation. The team working on Thunderbird got way more organized, and we put out many of the fires that made developing Thunderbird so hard. 

I could probably write a book on this part, but trust me: it was really, really tough to solve all these problems. Fortunately, it has all paid off in allowing us to do more in a faster and more efficient way.

Thunderbird Adopts A Puppy

Then we were able to do bigger things. As noted in another blog post, I’d been talking to cketti who ran the K-9 Mail open source email client project. K-9 Mail was exactly what I thought Thunderbird on Android would be if it existed. Talking to Cketti for a couple of years showed me that the K-9 Mail project also faced a sustainability challenge.

After many Thunderbird Council discussions, we concluded that K-9 Mail and Thunderbird shared common values and that we could better serve our users by adopting the project. K-9 Mail is amazing software, with a long legacy like Thunderbird and I’m excited that soon we will ship Thunderbird for Android based on the awesome foundation the K-9 Mail team has built and continues to improve. 

At the same time, there was a dreaded task to take on. Parts of the Thunderbird codebase are 20 years old. In software time, that’s ancient, like the pyramids are ancient. That old code made fixing long standing bugs or adding a feature extraordinarily difficult. Often a small change would break something random in a totally different part of the application and it would take a lot of time to figure out why. We had to fix this in the areas that were most affecting our work. 

Enter the “Supernova” project.

But WHY The Name “Supernova?” 

I named the 115 release Thunderbird “Supernova” after a cosmic explosion because I knew we were going to have to blow some things up and rebuild them. But I also knew the result was going to be beautiful and more powerful for our users. (Quick aside: a supernova often results in a beautiful nebula – search “Crab Nebula” to see what I mean). We rebuilt some really core parts of Thunderbird (a ton of the front-end, the message list, and message display areas to name a few). And in the process, we began a journey of future-proofing Thunderbird so that it can live for another 20 years. 

A photo of the Crab Nebula, courtesy of NASA
This view of the Crab Nebula in visible light comes from the Hubble Space Telescope and spans 12 light-years. The supernova remnant, located 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, is among the best-studied objects in the sky. Credits: NASA/ESA/ASU/J. Hester

And to celebrate, we gave Thunderbird a new logo.

Now, we look forward to the future, but email as a standard is under threat. It is becoming less of an open ecosystem and one of large fiefdoms with high walls.

The biggest providers are making features and tools that only work within their walled garden. They espouse “privacy” while maintaining access to all your messages in their privacy policies. They make it increasingly harder to use clients like Thunderbird because they want you to live in their apps in order to monetize you and your data. 

Next: Thunderbird for Android and iOS

But Thunderbird has an important story to tell. A story of decentralized, privacy-respecting email based on open standards. We’ve always created open source software that anyone can use, contribute to, and extend to their specific needs. 

By the time Q1 2024 rolls around, we’ll have opened the aperture a bit and given folks a new choice on Android. Next year we’re also going to start working on Thunderbird for iOS. In addition, we’re going to develop the tools that give people choices other than the big three. Thunderbird has come a long way these past few years, but we’re not done yet – come and join us as we get ready to do so much more!

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