Is Thunderbird Too Little, Too Late?

You win some, you lose some. The Mozilla project has won big with Firefox, but not so much with Thunderbird. Thunderbird 3 is a decent mail user agent, but it doesn't seem to have the right stuff to break out into widespread usage.

A few weeks ago, the Mozilla Messaging folks released the second beta for Thunderbird 3.1. The list of features amount to some nice improvements, but nothing revolutionary. One has to wonder if Thunderbird will ever be relevant to a wide audience, or if the Mozilla Messaging team should be focusing on doing more than incremental improvements to an old-school mailer.

I don’t mean to harsh on Thunderbird unduly, or disparage the good work being done by the Thunderbird developers. Criticizing Thunderbird feels a bit like kicking a puppy with a boot made out of kitten skins. It seems harsh to say, but Thunderbird appears to be floundering as a project and certainly isn’t grabbing market share the way Firefox has. That’s a shame, because the philosophy behind Mozilla Messaging is very user-centric.

It’s harder to find stats for mail client usage compared to finding stats for browser usage. Looking at some email campaign companies that fingerprint mailers, you’ll see Thunderbird with about 1% to 2.4% of the market. Compare this to more than 35% for Outlook (all variants) and a pretty hefty share for Webmail clients. The iPhone comes in with more than 8% according to Campaign Monitor.

Fuzzy Use Case

One of the problems with Thunderbird is that it doesn’t seem to fit with most users’ needs for email. That is, it doesn’t work well for business users who need features like calendaring and groupware connectivity, and it doesn’t work well for casual mail users who have mostly adopted Webmail or whatever ships on their computer.

If the stats compiled by the Campaign Monitor and Fingerprint are relatively accurate, it shows that most users are either working with Outlook, Webmail, or the mailer that ships with the iPhone or their Mac. In other words, casual users who need compelling features to be motivated to switch, or advanced users who need connectivity to Exchange.

Thunderbird isn’t well-suited in either case. Don’t get me wrong, Thunderbird is a decent mailer for advanced users. But it doesn’t seem to be focused on any specific use case. It’s too complex for casual users, and not full-featured enough for business users. The audience it is well suited for is not large enough to push it into double digits.

Why’s that a problem? Mozilla Messaging needs to find some ways to fund the project and encourage more developers. The Mozilla Foundation gets most of its money off the search deal with Google right now. It can earn big bucks to pay hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people to work on Firefox and other Mozilla projects because it has enough users. And Firefox is large enough that third parties want to participate and help make Firefox better. Thunderbird is not seeing that kind of momentum.

No Developer Momentum

One of the major problems that Thunderbird has is that it has very little in the way of a developer ecosystem. Firefox was made great, and massively popular, in large part thanks to its developer community, especially the enormous add-on community. Even before Firefox was as popular as it is today, it had a thriving add-on developer community.

Thunderbird? Not so much. Actually, the mailer seems to be going backwards a bit. A friend of mine was searching for an add-on to send out emails at a specific time. Nothing like that exists for Thunderbird 3.x, but there was an add-on that did this a couple of years ago. It just hasn’t been maintained. This was what started me thinking about Thunderbird and where it was going.

The Lightning and Sunbird calendaring projects have been struggling due to lack of developers. They have been in development for years, but still haven’t made it to 1.0.

Thunderbird Stands Alone

Another problem that Thunderbird has is a lack of a server-side solution. Sure, it handles IMAP and POP3, but good luck with Exchange, GroupWise, etc. On the consumer side, it lacks solutions like Mobile Me to sync contacts and such between computers.

And there’s no mobile Thunderbird solution in the picture or on the horizon. Thunderbird doesn’t fit well with the way many people are using mail.

The Raindrop project from Mozilla Labs looks interesting as a way to unify different messaging services. But it doesn’t really interact with Thunderbird.

No Killer Features

Thunderbird has a few nifty features in the 3.x series, notably around search. But really, Thunderbird doesn’t have any features I can think of that make it a “must have” over any other mailer, especially on Windows or Mac OS X.

When I compare Thunderbird to other Linux mailers, I can’t think of any features that make it super-compelling next to Evolution or KMail. It’s not bad, it just isn’t across-the-board better, either. And for power users, it’s probably not as interesting as Claws or Mutt. Thunderbird is moderately customizable, but not to the extent of Claws, Mutt, or Gnus for Emacs.

Suggestions

Despite finding flaw with Thunderbird as it is today, I’d really like to see Mozilla Messaging succeed, and succeed wildly. There should be little doubt that the Web is a better place today thanks to Mozilla Firefox, regardless of whether you use Firefox itself.

Email, calendaring, and other groupware is a cesspit today. Email has not improved significantly in the 15 years I’ve been using it. Calendaring is still a mess of corporate and individual silos that mean it’s next to impossible to conveniently set meetings between individuals or organizations.

It’d be a good idea for the Thunderbird folks to think seriously about fixing some of the back-end problems, and deciding whether to focus on consumer or corporate use. I’d recommend consumer for the time being. Moz should also think about not only fixing some of the back-end problems, but hosting mail for users as a way to help fund development. Perhaps even developing a Webmail solution instead of concentrating on a desktop client.

Thunderbird also needs to have some killer features that help it stand out from the pack. Being able to send timed email would be a start. Allowing users to annotate emails and do more contact management within the mailer would be another great feature. Thunderbird desperately needs calendaring. The project should stop focusing on Sunbird and make Lightning an optional part of the Thunderbird install.

A mobile strategy also seems like a necessity, though Thunderbird mobile seems unlikely. Apple probably wouldn’t approve it on the iPhone, and I’m imagining it would have a hard time gaining traction on Android or Blackberry.

Thunderbird is a decent mailer, but it’s not a game-changer the way that Firefox was. If it doesn’t improve drastically, it seems doomed to always have only a sliver of the market — which makes it unlikely the project as a whole will succeed. So far, the improvements in Thunderbird 3.x have been too little and too late to drive mass adoption.

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