Caspia Projects and Thunderbird – Open Source In Absentia

By | March 23, 2017
People of Thunderbird - Chinook Nation

Clallam Bay is located among various Native American tribes where the Thunderbird is an important cultural symbol.

I’m recycling an old trademark that I’ve used, Caspia, to describe my projects to involve Washington State prisoners in open-source projects. After an afternoon of brainstorming, Caspia is a new acronym “Creating Accomplished Software Professionals In Absentia”.
What does this have to do with Thunderbird? I sat in a room a few weeks ago with 10 guys at Clallam Bay, all who have been in a full-time, intensive software training program for about a year, who are really interested in trying to do real-world projects rather than simply hidden internal projects that are classroom assignments, or personal projects with no public outlet. I start in April spending two days per week with these guys. Then there are another 10 or so guys at WSR in Monroe that started last month, though the situation there is more complex. The situation is similar to other groups of students that might be able to work on Thunderbird or Mozilla projects, with these differences:1) Student or GSOC projects tend to have a duration of a few months, while the expected commitment time for this group is much longer.

2) Communication is extremely difficult. There is no internet access. Any communication of code or comments is accomplished through sneakernet options. It is easier to get things like software artifacts in rather than bring them out. The internal issues of allowing this to proceed at all are tenuous at both facilities, though we are further along at Clallam Bay.

3) Given the men’s situation, they are very sensitive to their ability to accumulate both publicly accessible records of their work, and personal recommendations of their skill. Similarly, they want marketable skills.

4) They have a mentor (me) that is heavily engaged in the Thunderbird/Mozilla world.

Because they are for the most part not hobbyists trying to scratch an itch, but rather people desperate to find a pathway to success in the future, I feel a very large responsibility to steer them in the direction of projects that would demonstrate skills that are likely to be marketable, and provide visibility that would be easily accessible to possible future employees. Fixing obscure regressions in legacy Thunderbird code, with contributions tracked only in hg.mozilla.org and BMO, does not really fit that very well. For those reasons, I have a strong bias in favor of projects that 1) involve skills usable outside the narrow range of the Mozilla platform, and 2) can be tracked on github.

I’ve already mentioned one project that we are looking at, which is the broad category of Contact manager. This is the primary focus of the group at WSR in Monroe. For the group at Clallam Bay, I am leaning toward focusing on the XUL->HTML conversion issue. Again I would look at this more broadly than just the issues in Thunderbird, perhaps developing a library of Web Components that emulate XUL functionality, and can be used both to easily migrate existing XUL to HTML, but also as a separate library for desktop-focused web applications. This is one of the triad of platform conversions that Thunderbird needs to do (the others being C++->JavaScript, and XPCOM->SomethingElse).

I can see that if the technical directions I am looking at turn out to work with Thunderbird, it will mean some big changes. These projects will mostly be done using GitHub repos, so we would need to improve our ability to work with external libraries. (We already do that with JsMime but poorly). The momentum in the JS world these days, unfortunately, is with Node and Chrome V8. That is going to cause a lot of grief as we try to co-exist with Node/V8 and Gecko. I could also see large parts of our existing core functionality (such as the IMAP backend) migrated to a third-party library.

Our progress will be very slow at first as we undergo internal training, but I think these groups could start having a major impact on Thunderbird in about a year.

:rkent