What's happening with Mozilla and Thunderbird

Liam Proven lproven at gmail.com
Sun Sep 16 16:08:03 UTC 2007

Here is a summary of what's going on, as per my understanding.

The Mozilla Foundation is the parent company developing the "official"
Mozilla browsers. It's nominally a non-profit corporation, making a
pittance from selling T-shirts and baseball caps and bags and things
with the Firefox logo on.

*A bit of history*

The original Mozilla browser was Netscape 5, open sourced. Netscape
was a complete suite: in one app, it was a browser, email program, Web
editor, IRC program, newsreader and more. Some bits, for example
collaborative calendaring (bought in when Netscape Inc. acquired
Collabra), were not open sourced, sadly.

Historical detail that will become important: from the early days of
the "Netscape Suite", Netscape also offered a standalone browser,
without the email etc. It was called "Netscape Navigator". It was
dropped when Netscape Communicator 4.5 was released.

The name "Mozilla" was originally Netscape's internal codename for its
all-singing all-dancing browser, based on Mosaic.

Mozilla the product (more specifically known as the Mozilla Internet
Suite), as in the open-source descendant of the Netscape suite, took a
long time to finish, partly because Netscape 5 was far from finished
or working when it was open-sourced.

Mozilla was a popular browser on Unix, especially open source flavours
like Linux and xBSD, but it didn't make much impact on Windows. It
remained a minority product.

Dave Hyatt & Blake Ross started a spinoff project, originally called
Phoenix. It was a cut-down version of Mozilla that was just a browser,
nothing else. Smaller, faster and simpler, it worked alongside other
apps such as email programs (e.g. MS Outlook), but unlike other
spinoff browsers (Epiphany, K-Meleon, Camino), it still used Mozilla's
cross-platform XUL interface library, meaning that it was portable
between Windows, Unix and Mac and worked much the same on all of them,
including add-ins and extensions.

Phoenix was a big success. Alas "Phoenix" is also a computer company,
writing PC BIOSes. So Phoenix-the-browser was renamed "Firebird"
(which is what a phoenix is).

Success continues; downloads rise.

Alas, "Firebird" is also an open-source relational database. So
Firebird-the-browser was renamed Firefox.

*Mozilla chages focus*

Firefox has done massively well. It's taken about a one-quarter share
of the world browser market, which is to say, it's taken it from MS
Internet Explorer.

Suddenly the fairly obscure Mozilla Foundation had a big success on its hands.

So, the Mozilla Foundation changed its emphasis: from the Mozilla
Suite, it shifted focus to Firefox, its successful offspring.

After a while, the Mozilla Foundation stopped officially sponsoring
development of the original Mozilla Suite, as it had only a tiny
fraction of the users that Firefox enjoyed.

The original Mozilla Suite was revived by a team of developers outside
the Mozilla Foundation. It was renamed "SeaMonkey" and is still
actively developed today.

*And back to Thunderbird*

Now, the Mozilla Foundation is doing the same to Firefox's sister
program, Thunderbird. Thunderbird is the email and newsgroup bit of
the Mozilla Suite, hacked out and turned into a separate program.

Thunderbird has far fewer users than Firefox, partly because although
it's very good, it has many more rivals - there are dozens of
successful email clients out there. On Windows, Outlook Express is
provided for free and everyone with MS Office has Outlook. Mac OS X
users get Apple Mail for free. On Linux there are Evolution and
Sylpheed and Claws and many more. There's Opera, and there are free
webmail services like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail.

The Mozilla Foundation is stopping sponsoring Thunderbird and hopes
that an external team of developers will take it on instead. It is not
yet clear that this will happen, but it seems likely.

*the Qualcomm connection*

On of the oldest and most popular email programs is Qualcomm's Eudora.
It too is being discontinued: Qualcomm's main business now is chipsets
for mobile phones. The official successor to Eudora is codenamed
Penelope and it's based on Thunderbird.

At the moment, Penelope is an addin for Thunderbird that gives it
something of the look and feel of Eudora.

This probably means that many Eudora users will ultimately switch to
Thunderbird. This may be enough to bring it enough attention to
attract a lot more developer effort to Thunderbird.

Personally, I don't like the Eudora user interface much: I used to use
it and I don't get on with it. However, many thousands love it. A
version of Thunderbird which could switch between the Netscape look
and the Eudora look might be really successful.


Thunderbird is about to go through a really troubled spot, but its
prospects actually look fairly good.

*An interesting sidenote*

The Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit body, but actually, it's making
tens of millions of dollars. Firefox includes a search box in the top
right corner. By default, this searches Google. Google give a tiny
kickback to anyone referring searches to them. The millions of Firefox
users using the search box dozens of times a day made the Mozilla
Foundation over US$70 million last year. So actually, Mozilla is doing
*great* out of Firefox.

On the one hand, it's only fair and reasonable that the Foundation
focusses its efforts on its successful product.

On the other hand, some - myself included - feel that some of this
benefit should be reflected upon its other products, too.

And on the gripping hand (to out myself as an SF fan), it would seem
wise for the Mozilla Foundation to spread its bets and not place all
its eggs in the basked of its hugely popular free browser.

Liam Proven • Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/liamproven
Email: lproven at cix.co.uk • GMail/GoogleTalk/Orkut: lproven at gmail.com
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