Thunderbird’s Strategic Dilemma

By | July 15, 2010

In a recent tb-planning post, neandr wrote:

With all respect for the people working at Mozilla/Thunderbird and fully understand the limitation they are faced with, I would like to see a more detailed mission statement for the products (TB/LG) and the future of it. Only expressing TB is for individual users, SOHO and not for the Enterprise is a very vague  statement

I was going to respond to that in the thread, but I got wordy so I posted this blog entry instead.

At the recently completed Mozilla Summit, variations of this request were made by many people that are close to the Thunderbird project (including myself). But after listening to several days of Firefox people extolling the virtues of moving everything to the browser, and being “more like the web”, I have a new appreciation of how difficult the development of a vision statement is for the Thunderbird team.

The standard game plan that Mozilla projects are expected to follow is to develop an application with a significantly high market share so that they can use their market influence to fight for the rights of individual users. Mozilla is a fascinating organization as a hybrid commercial/public interest organization, and they take their values quite seriously.

Unfortunately Thunderbird, which is the only real product that MoMo currently has, hovers around 6 million users, which is much lower than the number they believe are necessary to have the influence they would like (I have heard 100 million users as a goal). Nobody currently has a concrete plan to develop a product with 100 million users. So the current strategy (as I see it) is to try a series of experiments to try to develop some concepts that might be used to specify the 100 million user product. I can’t resist naming things (my wife calls me “an Adam”), so let’s call this future product by the code name “Gigabird”.

One such experiment is Raindrop. Other experiments are going on in extensions to Thunderbird, which seem to be focusing on changes to the user interface. Right now, that is where the vast majority of the developer resources are focused at MoMo.

So if your real strategic mission is to develop Gigabird, what do you do with your legacy product Thunderbird? The big problem is that the “ordinary users” that are the primary focus of Firefox (and by implication also MoMo) are migrating away from email for many forms of messaging to other media – Twitter, Facebook, text messages, web forums, blog comments, etc. The hardcore users of email (who are likely to continue to use a desktop client) are sitting in office cubicles, yet going after these “enterprise” users is counter-cultural for Mozilla.

So what are the strategic choices available to MoMo?

the HailMary

The goal here is to try to come up with one or more really clever innovations that will form the basis of Gigabird. This is, after all, the way that some of the new messaging formats have occurred, with Twitter as the poster child. Using these innovations as a base, the basic plan for Gigabird will be formulated at some point in the future. This is the current MoMo strategy, at least as I see it. Given the existing Mozilla culture, I would probably do this as well. (Warning: should this strategy every become publicly revealed, the director will disavow any knowledge of these actions.)

the AboutFace

Here you notice that the values-driven direction that you felt so passionate about is actually not going to get you anywhere, so you make a major readjustment in values to allow you to pragmatically accept a new direction. Such moves have been done by Mozilla in the past, and are part of the standard corporate Myth propagated by Mitchell Baker (the story about how in the early days they were adamant about never shipping a binary). The application to MoMo could be to accept that what they have is an email product, and their future users are going to be sitting in cubicles. Users in cubicles should have rights too, so there could be a valid Mozilla Foundation purpose in fighting for the rights of these “enterprise users” and let Thunderbird develop into an enterprise product.

the SlowPlod

This is the direction that existing Thunderbird users are hoping for. The ultimate goal is to slowly improve Thunderbird until it is undeniably the best email client around. You fix any important bugs.  You support all of the hot new messaging concepts. You spiff up the user interface, incrementally adding new features that provide small improvements to usability. You keep your power uses happy with lots of extensions for specialized purposes. It’s pretty clear that dmose does not believe that he has sufficient resources to pursue this strategy, nor is he likely to have them in the foreseeable future. The Thunderbird code base is also really hard to adapt to these new media (witness the struggles that I have had or jcranmer’s blog ). I think that the MoMo team wishes us well, but believes that the future lies elsewhere.

the VacuumTube

Just because you can’t change the direction of humanity does not mean that you have nothing. Vacuum tubes are long gone – yet the guitar player at my church proudly uses his fancy amp with glowing tubes showing through plexiglass. The company that bought one of my previous businesses had also previously purchased a manufacturer of vacuum tubes, which had morphed into specialized purposes like lamps for spectroscopy, and nuclear-warfare-resistant cathode ray tubes. Email clients will be with us forever, and in the hands of people who love them could have a useful future in various niches.

My Prediction

MoMo will pursue the HailMary until they have enough ideas to formulate a real plan. At that point, they will want to devote all of their resources to Gigabird, and be looking for an honorable way to retreat from Thunderbird – which will be a variation of the VacuumTube. The likely retreat will probably be some sort of future custodianship by a conglomeration of companies that provide a freemium strategy. So if there was a basic, free Thunderbird product that could be enhanced with addons with commercial value (like my Exchange Web Services product, or Postbox as a Thunderbird addon), then MoMo could pursue their vision without abandoning their Thunderbird users, and let companies like MesQuilla and Postbox support Thunderbird.