Thunderbird e-mail client survives Mozilla layoffs

Despite rumors to the contrary, Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail client will live.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Recently, Mozilla laid off almost a quarter of its staff. That meant bad news for its flagship Firefox web browser. And some people wondered if this also meant that Thunderbird, Mozilla's e-mail client with 25 million users, was on its way out. It's not. Thunderbird is safe.

Ali Taghavi, Mozilla's director of corporate communications, said: "Thunderbird is not impacted by the layoffs." As of January this year, Thunderbird began operating from a new wholly-owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, MZLA Technologies Corporation

In this latest incarnation, as a standalone business, Thunderbird can "collect revenue through partnerships and non-charitable donations" in its own right. Nevertheless, moving forward, Thunderbird will remain an open-source program. It is also staying focused on open standards, user privacy, and productive communication. While a corporation now,  the Thunderbird Council continues to steward the project.

Still, it's perfectly understandable why people might assume that Thunderbird might have been tossed into the trash can. The e-mail client certainly has its fans outside of Mozilla, but, within Mozilla, its history has been rocky.

It began in 2003 as a spin-off from the all-in-one Mozilla Application Suite. By 2007, however, Mozilla booted the project out to live or die on its own. Mozilla was then, as now, focusing primarily on Firefox. A standalone e-mail client didn't fit into its plans. Eventually, Thunderbird reintegrated into Mozilla.

Its fans kept Thunderbird alive -- albeit on life support. But, in 2012, Mozilla announced that thanks to a lack of funding it was stopping development on new Thunderbird features. Mozilla would receive security patches, but that would be it.

Mitchell Baker, Mozilla's chairwoman and CEO, had no love for the project. In December 2015, she declared  Mozilla platform engineers were paying "tax to support Thunderbird."  She suggested that Thunderbird be spun out for once and for all.

That was easier said than done. In 2016, Mozilla looked at also possible homes for the unwanted e-mail client. This included the Software Freedom Conservancy, which helps manage the Git, BusyBox, Samba, and Wine open-source projects. Or, the Document Foundation, LibreOffice's manager. 

Nothing came of those suggestions, but Thunderbird's loyal users rallied to the beleaguered program with financial donations. By May 2017, Mozilla re-committed to the project and active development started again. 

Now, Thunderbird, under MZLA, is charting its own course. The latest version, Thunderbird 78, comes with many minor improvements. Its biggest feature is its Lightning calendar, and tasks add-on has finally been completely integrated into the program. Within the next few months, in the forthcoming Thunderbird 78.2, the program will finally get the long-anticipated power to encrypt end-to-end email messages via OpenPGP

Despite all of Mozilla's efforts to get rid of Thunderbird, the program is living on. And although most users now use web-based e-mail services, such as Gmail and Microsoft 365, millions still like standalone e-mail clients. According to Statista, 18% of all e-mail users are still using desktop e-mail clients. Finally, if you think that e-mail is dying thanks to competition from programs like Teams, Slack, and Zoom, think again. Statista and The Radicati Group are both finding that both the number of e-mail users and its sheer volume continue to grow ever larger.

Thunderbird's audience is only to keep growing. The real question is: Will the now semi-independent Thunderbird manage to start prospering as well?

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