Following Mitchell's Email call to action and Scott MacGregor's response, I've seen here and there articles and blogs posts about the future of Thunderbird. I'll save my ideas about the future of Thunderbird for a later post, and I'll focus on what opposes Firefox and the Web on one side to Thunderbird and email on the other side. I'm writing this because many people assume that since they are both Open-Source / Free-Software products by Mozilla, they must be treated the same way. I don't think it's true, and here is why:
Email is actually interoperable. Whatever the email client and the operating system one uses whether on the sender or recipient's side, an email message is decently transmitted. It's not absolutely perfect yet, but email works. I don't have to bother whether the recipient is using an email client or another, whether it's a Webmail client or a fat client, it just works.
For the Web, it's a totally different story, and interoperability is a must. For years, there were many sites that could be used only if you were running Internet Explorer on Windows. Firefox' market share has changed this in many countries, enabling Safari and Opera users to have a better experience with their browser of choice. There are counter-examples to this, for example in South Korea, where IE still has a monopoly.
The state of existing products before TB and FX arrived
IE was broken. Seriously. Pop-ups, adware, spyware, viruses, all of them have made the Web experience a nightmare. People were fed up with it. Many people where about to turn their back on the Web, because it was not keeping its promises, thanks to a monopoly not taking care of its customers. When Firefox was released, it was a big relief for computer-savvy people. Firefox was an instant success, even before it reached its 1.0 version.
For email and Thunderbird, things were very different. Outlook Express was less of a broken product, compared to Internet Explorer. And there were vendors interested in selling messaging solutions, including Microsoft with Exchange/Outlook.
Market growth and demographics
I live in Firefox and Thunderbird. These are two of my applications that are always open on my laptop. But I'm not an average user. People who are new to the Internet need a browser, it's a given. But not everybody needs an email account. I know, if you're reading this blog, you have an email account. But for the younger generation, email is boring, very passé. Young folks do use the Internet to communicate, but it's mostly via social networks, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, IM, SMS-Texting and so forth. In their eyes, email is for old people in offices. And those who actually use their email account, Webmail is the way to go. Hotmail (or whatever it's called now), GMail, Yahoo Mail are much more successful than "Fat clients" with POP or IMAP accounts.
Ability for users to try a new product
Trying out a browser is easy (provided that you know what "browser" means and how to download and install software, that is). And it's easy to get back to your old product if the new one is disappointing. The worst case scenario is that bookmarks you added in Firefox won't appear if you switch back to IE. It's a very little price to pay, so people are likely to try Firefox, as they know they'll be able to switch back.
For email, things are much more worrisome for users, with need to migrate email archives (and what is going to happen if there is not enough disk space during migration?). And if I'm not convinced by Thunderbird, is there an import filter so that I can migrate back to my old email client?
There is a Web industry, and it's booming. Big established players and start-ups are competing and innovating. All of them depend on secure and innovative browsers to deliver their products.
I'm sure there are start-ups about email, but I don't think they're as exciting and numerous compared to the Web space. Therefore, everybody joining the Mozilla project does it for the browser, not the email client.
Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I think that more and more, a computer without a browser and Internet access is useless. If I had to get rid of all my applications but one, I'd save the browser and switch to Webmail instantly, and I'd use Wikis, Google Spreadsheet and similar systems.
Number of users
Most of the factors listed combined together indicate two things:
- Thunderbird and email is important for many of us.
- Firefox and the Web are way more important for all of us.
Numbers of users reflect this in a very clear way: there are more than 100 millions Firefox users worldwide, and probably around 5 millions Thunderbird users.
As a conclusion, I'd like to quote Web Worker Daily:
It's hard when no matter how good you are, your brother is still everyone's darling.
Email is important, Thunderbird is important. Let's make sure that we together find a solution so that Thunderbird can reach its full potential, despite Firefox' success.