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Mozilla Puts the Brakes on Thunderbird

Security updates will continue, but new innovation will depend on community involvement, the foundation says.

Mozilla may be best-known for its popular Firefox browser, but some 20 million users around the globe also know it for Thunderbird, its free and open source desktop email client.

Just a month after the release of the latest version 13 of Thunderbird, however, a leaked email on Friday apparently forced Mozilla to admit that it's putting the brakes on internal Thunderbird development.

"Once again we've been asking the question: is Thunderbird a likely source of innovation and of leadership in today's Internet life? Or is Thunderbird already pretty much what its users want and mostly needs some on-going maintenance?" wrote Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, in a blog post on Friday.

Mozilla's conclusion, it turns out, is that "ongoing stability is the most important thing, and that continued innovation in Thunderbird is not a priority for Mozilla's product efforts," Baker added.

Accordingly, it has developed a plan that "provides both stability for Thunderbird's current state and allows the Thunderbird community to innovate if it chooses," she explained.

Two Thunderbird Tracks

Specifically, Mozilla will continue to provide security maintenance updates through an Extended Support Release (ESR) process similar to what it has for Firefox targeting large organizations that use the software.

There is already a Thunderbird ESR version, and the next release of that software is due in November. "It will inherit the then-current Thunderbird feature-set," Mozilla explains in an article on the MozillaWiki. "This release will be updated every six weeks, for the duration of the ESR cycle to ensure the best possible security and stability for organizations."

The non-ESR version of Thunderbird, meanwhile, will be released with the same feature set as Thunderbird ESR and will be updated every six weeks for security and stability. Unlike Thunderbird ESR, however, this version could evolve over time feature-wise if members of the community choose to work on it.

Baker's sentiments were largely echoed in a follow-up blog post on Sunday by Thunderbird Managing Director Jb Piacentino, who noted that Mozilla is increasingly shifting its focus towards Web and mobile projects such as FirefoxOS.

A Final Plan in September

Indeed, as Web-based email services skyrocket in popularity, it's not entirely surprising to see Mozilla make this move.

Still, as a longtime user of Thunderbird, I can't help but feel a little sad. I hope that some passionate fans out there will pick up the project and keep it vibrant, but Baker doesn't sound entirely confident that that will happen.

Who knows? Maybe we'll even see Ubuntu Linux maker Canonical step in, as at least one observer has suggested.

In any case, Mozilla is interested in any feedback, particularly from potential developers interested in picking the project up. It aims to share a final plan of action in early September, Piacentino says. I'll let you know if I hear any significant news before that.

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