The investigations on Thunderbird’s future home have concluded. The Mozilla Foundation has agreed to serve as the legal and fiscal home for the Thunderbird project, but Thunderbird will migrate off Mozilla Corporation infrastructure, separating the operational aspects of the project.
In late 2015 Mitchell Baker started a discussion on the future of Thunderbird, and later blogged about the outcome of that, including this quote:
I’ve seen some characterize this as Mozilla “dropping” Thunderbird. This is not accurate. We are going to disentangle the technical infrastructure. We are going to assist the Thunderbird community. This includes working with organizations that want to invest in Thunderbird, several of which have stepped forward already. Mozilla Foundation will serve as a fiscal sponsor for Thunderbird donations during this time.
To investigate potential new homes for Thunderbird, Mozilla commissioned a report from Simon Phipps, former president of the OSI.
The Last Year’s Investigations
The Phipps report saw three viable choices for the Thunderbird Project’s future home: the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), The Document Foundation (TDF) and a new deal at the Mozilla Foundation. An independent “Thunderbird Foundation” alternative was not recommended as a first step but the report said it “may become appropriate in the future for Thunderbird to separate from its new host and become a full independent entity”.
Since then the Thunderbird Council, the governing body for the Thunderbird project, has worked to determine the most appropriate long term financial and organizational home, using the Phipps report as a starting point. Over the past year, the Council has thoroughly discussed the needs of a future Thunderbird team, and focused on investigating the non-Mozilla organizations as a potential future home. Many meetings and conversations were held with organizations such as TDF and SFC to determine their suitability as potential homes, or models to build on.
In parallel, Thunderbird worked to develop a revenue stream, which would be needed regardless of an eventual home. So the Thunderbird Council arranged to collect donations from our users, with the Mozilla Foundation as fiscal sponsor. Many months of donations have developed a strong revenue stream that has given us the confidence to begin moving away from Mozilla-hosted infrastructure, and to hire a staff to support this process. Our infrastructure is moving to thunderbird.net and we’re already running some Thunderbird-only services, like the ISPDB (used for auto configuring users’ email accounts), on our own.
Legally our existence is still under the Mozilla Foundation through their ownership of the trademark, and their control of the update path and websites that we use. This arrangement has been working well from Thunderbird’s point of view. But there are still pain points – build/release, localization, and divergent plans with respect to add-ons, to name a few. These are pain points for both Thunderbird and Firefox, and we obviously want them resolved. However, the Council feels these pain points would not be addressed by moving to TDF or SFC.
Thus, much has changed since 2015 – we were able to establish a financial home at the Mozilla Foundation, we are successfully collecting donations from our users, and the first steps of migrating infrastructure have been taken. We started questioning the usefulness of moving elsewhere, organizationally. While Mozilla wants to be laser-focused on the success of Firefox, in recent discussions it was clear that they continue to have a strong desire to see Thunderbird succeed. In many ways, there is more need for independent and secure email than ever. As long as Thunderbird doesn’t slow down the progress of Firefox, there seems to be no significant obstacles for continued co-existence.
We have come to the conclusion that a move to a non-Mozilla organization will be a major distraction to addressing technical issues and building a strong Thunderbird team. Also, while we hope to be independent from Gecko in the long term, it is in Thunderbird’s interest to remain as close to Mozilla as possible to in the hope that it gives use better access to people who can help us plan for and sort through Gecko-driven incompatibilities.
We’d like to emphasize that all organizations we were in contact with were extremely welcoming and great to work with. The decision we have made should not reflect negatively on these organizations and we would like to thank them for their support during our orientation phase.
The Mozilla Foundation has agreed to continue as Thunderbird’s legal, fiscal and cultural home, with the following provisos:
- The Thunderbird Council and the Mozilla Foundation executive team maintain a good working relationship and make decisions in a timely manner.
- The Thunderbird Council and the team make meaningful progress in short order on operational and technical independence from Mozilla Corporation.
- Either side may give the other six months notice if they wish to discontinue the Mozilla Foundation’s role as the legal and fiscal host of the Thunderbird project.
Mozilla would invoke C if A+B don’t happen. If C happened, Thunderbird would be expected to move to another organization over the course of six months.
From an operational perspective, Thunderbird needs to act independently. The Council will be managing all operations and infrastructure required to serve over 25 million users and the community surrounding it. This will require a certain amount of working capital and the ability to make strong decisions. The Mozilla Foundation will work with the Thunderbird Council to ensure that operational decisions can be made without substantial barriers.
If it becomes necessary for operational success, the Thunderbird Council will register a separate legal organization. The new organization would run certain aspects of Thunderbird’s operations, gradually increasing in capacity. Donor funds would be allocated to support the new organization. The relationship with Mozilla would be contractual, for example permission to use the trademark.
A Bright Future
The Thunderbird Council is optimistic about the future. With the organizational question settled, we can focus on the technical challenges ahead. Thunderbird will remain a Gecko-based application at least in the midterm, but many of the technologies Thunderbird relies upon in that platform will one day no longer be supported. The long term plan is to migrate our code to web technologies, but this will take time, staff, and planning. We are looking for highly skilled volunteer developers who can help us with this endeavor, to make sure the world continues to have a high-performance open-source secure email client it can rely upon.