What Thunderbird Learned at FOSDEM

Hello everyone! I’m writing this following a visit to Brussels this past weekend to the Free and Open Source Software conference called FOSDEM. As far as I know it is one of the largest, if not the largest FOSS conference in Europe. It proved to be a great opportunity to discuss Thunderbird with a wide range of contributors, users, and interested developers – and the feedback I received at the event was fantastic (and helpful)!

First, some background, the Thunderbird team was stationed in the Mozilla booth, on the second floor of building K. We were next to the Apache Software Foundation and the Kopano Collaborative software booths (the Kopano folks gave us candy with “Mozilla” printed on it – very cool). We had hundreds of people stop by the booth and I got to ask a bunch of them about what they thought of Thunderbird. Below are some insights I gained from talking to the FOSDEM attendees.

Feedback from FOSDEM

1. I thought the project was dead. What’s the plan for the future of Thunderbird?

This was the number one thing I heard repeatedly throughout the conference. This is not surprising as, while the project has remained active following its split from Mozilla corp, it has not been seen to push the boundaries or made a lot of noise about its own initiatives. We, as the Thunderbird community, should be planning on the future and what that looks like – once we have a concrete roadmap, we should share that with the world to solicit interest and enthusiasm.

For fear of this question being misunderstood, this was never asked with malevolent intent or in a dismissive way (as far as I could tell). Most of the people who commented on the project being dead were generally interested in using Thunderbird (or were still), but didn’t realize anyone was actively doing development. I got many stories where people shared their relief saying “I was planning on having to move to something else for a mail client, but now that I’ve seen the project making plans, I’m going to stay with it.”

Currently, we have a lot to talk about regarding the future of Thunderbird. We have made new hires (yours truly included), we are hiring a developer to work on various parts of the project, and we are working with organizations like Monterail in order to get feedback on the interface. With the upcoming Thunderbird Council elections, the Community will get an opportunity to shape the leadership of the project as well.

2. I would like to see a mobile app.

The second most prevalent thing expressed to me at FOSDEM was the desire for a Thunderbird mobile app. When I asked what that might look like the answers were uniformly along the lines of: “There is not a really good, open source, Email client on mobile. Thunderbird seems like a great project with the expertise to solve that.”

3. Where’s the forum?

Heard this a few times and was surprised out how adamant the people asking were. They pointed out that they were Thunderbird users, but weren’t really into mailing lists. I had it iterated to me a handful of times that Discourse allows you to respond via Email or the website. As a result I have begun working on setting something up.

The biggest barrier I see to making a forum a core part of the community effort is getting buy-in from MOST of the contributors to the project currently. So, over the next week I’m going to try and get an idea of who is interested in participating and who is opposed.

4. I want built-in Encryption

This was a frequent request asked for in two forms, repeatedly. First, “How can I encrypt my Thunderbird Email?” and second, “Can you make encryption a default feature?” – the frequency with which this was asked indicates that this is important to this segment of our users (open source, technical).

To those who are curious as to how to encrypt your mail currently – the answer is you may use the Enigmail extension. In the future, we may be able to make this easier by having it built-in to Thunderbird and making it possible to enable in the settings. But that is a discussion that the community and developers need to explore further.

Final Thoughts

In closing, I heard a great many things beyond those four key points above – but many were thoughts on specific bugs people experienced (you can file bugs here), or just comments on how people used mostly webmail these days. On that second point, I heard that so frequently that I began to wonder what more we could offer as a project that would provide added value to users over what things like GMail, Inbox, and Outlook365 were offering.

All-around FOSDEM was a great event, met great people, heard amazing talks, and got to spread the good word of Thunderbird. Would love to hear the community’s ideas on what they think of what I heard, that means you, so please leave a comment below.

31 responses

  1. chad28 wrote on :

    I use BlueMail for my android phone, because I don’t like using Gmail and Outlook doesn’t support my mail.
    Since I use Firefox on Android using a Thunderbird app would allow me to be inside the Mozilla Eco-system and as such not spread my information to other services.
    Microsoft now has really cool Eco-system in Android: a launcher (Arrow), a browser (Edge), mail service (Outlook) and an assistant (Cortana).
    I think Mozilla could use a Launcher to replace their not successful Firefox OS, Firefox for android is already a thing and Thunderbird as a mail app.
    Also update Thunderbird (laptop) as soon as possible to Photon UI, make programs feel like their are part of the same Eco-system.
    I know you recently parted with Mozilla but from what I am aware you still have a relationship with them.

  2. Chris Adams wrote on :

    On the subject of encryption, S/MIME has broad support (e.g. all major desktop & mobile clients) and the security model is easier for most people to understand (WoT sadly often means “accept everything without checking” in practice). What it’s missing is a LetsEncrypt-style effort to make it easy for people in non-managed environments to get and renew certificates.

    It’d be really nice if Mozilla & the rest of the industry chose to invest in that infrastructure and some usability improvements to make it more manageable (e.g. storing old certs so the UI can say “this old message in your archive was signed by a certificate which was valid at the time it was received” rather than displaying an error as some clients do).

    This would be especially useful if it extended to browser integration so a user could trivially prove to a remote website that they had a valid signing certificate for a given address.

    1. Philip Whitehouse wrote on :

      I’m not aware of any live email app on Android that supports SMIME.

      Certainly not Outlook, Gmail or the open source apps.

  3. Sum Won wrote on :

    Hi, I’m wondering whether or not there will be improved support for KDE? There’s been a lot of interest in a proper mail client. Kmail is somewhat buggy, and it’s entirely unknown when Kube will be released, their progress seems slow but steady. This would be useful, given how the librem phone project is going – they would need applications first and foremost, and there has been a lot of work done already for plasma mobile. Thanks!

  4. Garn LeBaron wrote on :

    Convergence.
    While there is no doubt that email will always be an important part of the communication landscape, the landscape has shifted dramatically. With the emergence of tools like Slack and videoconferencing, we need integrated communication tools that reflect this change.

    The winners in this space will be whomever can integrate protocols like irc and jabber along with email, slack, and videoconferencing. Oh, and the videoconferencing needs to be agnostic. It shouldn’t matter whether the person on the other end is using GoToMeeting, WebEx, or whatever the Microsoft skype/lync/teams flavor of the week is. I want an app that can do it all.

  5. Emilis wrote on :

    Thunderbird provides one big value over just webmail: if Google (or other vendor) decides to lock your account (which seems to be happening even to innocent people from time to time), you get to keep all of your email history. Accessible offline.

    Now if Thunderbird had tools to switch email vendors on the fly (e.g. if you use your own domain) — that would build on that value, create more freedom for the users and maybe even attract new users.

    Good luck in moving the project further!

  6. m4lvin wrote on :

    “There is not a really good, open source, Email client on mobile. Thunderbird seems like a great project with the expertise to solve that.”

    I hope the people saying this have at least looked at K-9 Mail from https://github.com/k9mail/k-9 which recently improved their PGP support vastly. I am very happy with K-9 and also very happy that it is different from Thunderbird in many ways. Please don’t change anything in the Thunderbird UI just to make it “responsive”.

    1. eages wrote on :

      I completely agree.

  7. David R. wrote on :

    If you haven’t seen it yet, this post is on HN: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16339840

    I’ll also share a link to a comment I made when that UI survey made it to the HN front page: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16163497

    I definitely hope you set up a Discourse forum.

    Also, um, where do I go to view the code? I just spent a couple minutes poking around mozilla.org and I couldn’t figure out where the code for any project is… I’d think open source projects would have that front and center…

    1. Ryan Sipes wrote on :

      Hey David!

      The source code is here: https://hg.mozilla.org/comm-central/

      The new home for the Thunderbird Discourse is here: https://discourse.mozilla.org/c/thunderbird

      1. David R. wrote on :

        Thanks Ryan!

        I’m glad to see the Discourse forum! 🙂

  8. jah wrote on :

    Please make Thunderbird great again! The desktop app needs a lot of love before a mobile app should be considered. Make it easy for new contributors to hack on Thunderbird – finding ways to help and navigating the code are daunting prospects at the moment. Thank you.

  9. n8v8r wrote on :

    Thanks for sharing. Seems they main echo being a duplicate of responses to your previous blog entry. Enough said then, hopefully, and looking forward to discover TB picking up steam (fixing years old bugs, modern GUI. introducing new features)

  10. R Hilbert wrote on :

    If you are serious and truly want user participation then you not only need a feedback forum but you also need a web page dedicated to showing a tally of user requests for new features etc. somewhat akin to Wiki’s comparison tables.

    The table would serve to show suggested high-level changes in clear detail then allow readers to drill down to comment on the minutiae.

    The point I’m making is that there are so many things to fix and do in Thunderbird that there’ll be chaos. just trying to see if one’s suggestion has already been posted by others will be difficult. I alone have literally dozens of suggestions including bug fixes, ergonomic/usability issues and new functional/operational features.

    In the past many of us Thubdrbird users just gave up hoping that Mozilla would ever do anything with it other than to add poorly inplemented kludges/fixes – it seemed to us that T/Bird was suffering the same fate as ill-fated Eudora when it was dumped unceremoniously by Qualcomm.

    This time, you have to demonstrate to us users that you’re actually for real. It’s your last chance or we’ll be off for good.

  11. Chris Chug wrote on :

    I really like Thunderbird and and am very pleased to see an increasing effort in this project.

    Frankly I don’t get the mobile app point at all.
    Android has K-9 Mail and ie Roundcube is a great webmailer.
    Imho this is totally out-of-scope and a detrimental path for Thunderbird.

    In my opinion some plugin features should be mainline Thunderbird components.
    Such as Enigmail, Lightning and above all CardDAV support for the addressbook (ie Inverse Sogo Connector).

    Basically Thunderbird rocks and is the best mail client available. Thank you!

  12. Dzek wrote on :

    What Thunderbirds needs is to fix annoying 10+ years old bugs. I’ve found few of them after about 1 year of using it.

    Example: if message body (including text) is base64 encoded then a filter that does something to a message (moves to a folder for example) basing on text content will skip that message, because it probably compares filter value with raw encoded string.

  13. Bas wrote on :

    I’ve been using ThunderBird for 10+ years now… Please don’t let it die!! 🙂

  14. megan wrote on :

    I find webmail inadequate. It is not as responsive for most home network speeds and it also has less functionality. I think the search and filter capabilities on Thunderbird are better.

    I think what you should do is some videos of timed tests of doing various tasks on Outlook, gmail, etc and compare to Thunderbird.

    Also a video on some more advanced usage would help.

    Email is really not that great a tech because there is a flood of it and it is badly organized. You could advertise yourself by showing how Thunderbird can be used to organize this flood. You really do a better and faster job, but you need to communicate that, like any software company. You don’t get to ignore that sales aspect because you are open source. My 2cents. Good luck.

  15. Curt wrote on :

    Very happy to see there is life in Thunderbird.

    My wish list –

    Make secure chat like Signal available in Thunderbird.

    Perhaps help Protonmail get their secure bridge to work in Linux (only Windows and Mac so far)

    Those two things would greatly help people have secure communications.

    I would also like to see Thunderbird look as good as the new Firefox!

    A mobile app is also a great idea. I could help bring in new users too.

    Good luck!

  16. Kevin M. (Matthekc) wrote on :

    Thunderbird is my favorite email client… keep up the good work 🙂

  17. Bill wrote on :

    Thunderbird has been my choice for a long time, since I moved from pine. Yes, that long.
    While it’s exciting to see development happening, it’s also scary, especially since the Firefox Quantum mess. Let that mess teach. Don’t make all addons break. Don’t add a bunch of this and that, becoming a resource hog. Keep in mind the basics, users depend on those without thinking.

    I think addons are an excellent concept and worth using in-house, add new features by addon. Encryption is a good example, why add to base when most don’t encrypt? On the other hand, many will use it. Addon makes sense.

    We users look forward to seeing great progress, thanks!

  18. Kirk wrote on :

    A mobile client feels like an idea to weigh carefully. In a project with so few resources and with competition like k-9 already out there kicking butt, tbird should focus on the desktop code first. Looking forward to seeing a roadmap – how can I contribute to that?

    1. Ryan Sipes wrote on :

      Right now a great way to begin getting involved in discussions is via our new forum -available here: https://discourse.mozilla.org/c/thunderbird

      Let us know where you think we should be focusing our energies there! 🙂

  19. Erik van Oosten wrote on :

    My mother is using Thunderbird. Though this works (most of the time), it would be great if I can remove more buttons and dumb down the interface even further.

    I am using Thunderbird. I am particularly happy about how stable it is with all kinds of mail servers; it never gave me problems which I can not say for any other email client I have worked with. I would love to see a less cluttered interface for myself also (jay for Monterail!). More whishes:
    * in context menu suggest where to move the email based on its contents
    * hide email for some time (using inbox as todo list)
    * set default ordering for all mailboxes
    * improve search (stemming?)
    * addressbook sync between multiple Thunderbird instances
    * a mobile app, fantastic idea!

    Thanks!

  20. Christian wrote on :

    I wish Thunderbird had Google calendar with Lightning built-in.
    The current plugin still does not work with Thunderbird Beta. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/addon/provider-for-google-calendar/

  21. Contra wrote on :

    Thanks for the write-up! I’m looking forward to watching where Thunderbird goes.

    As to the Web mail, I use Gmail, and my main reason for using T-bird on my laptop is to have local copies of my mail downloaded seamlessly, which I can move to local folders if I choose to get them off Google’s servers. That’s the main added value that you provide to me.

  22. Gyges wrote on :

    Why don’t you approach the K9 team and ask them if they would like to merge with Thunderbird?

  23. dugite-code wrote on :

    What I really want to see core features added such as tnef parsing and auto add invites to calendar. With many people failing to set up Microsoft exchange properly I find myself struggling on a day to day basis.

  24. jumbo wrote on :

    I think Thunderbird should focus on being a desktop mail client for the time being.
    Getting the infrastructure refreshed and getting rid of the overwhelming list of bugs on the bugtracker is already more than enough to do for the current amount of people.
    Getting the calendar , addressbook and encryption perfectly integrated is a nice idea for the future.
    Improve the performance with rust and c rewrites instead of slow javascript and we are golden.

    I would leave the mobile stuff to k9 and its competitors. I doubt it is so bad that thunderbird has to come to the rescue on cellphones as well 🙂

  25. K wrote on :

    Guys, make a Mobile App and you’ll increase your user base by a stupid amount of users!

  26. Karl Eme wrote on :

    I just wanted to take the trouble to post a note to this blog. I have been using Thunderbird as my mail client for many years and love it. There seems to be a lot of negativity concerning development of any successful software and I would like to make a comment as a user – after all, that is why the software is being developed – for the majority of users.

    I feel there is really no need to cater for a minority of people by changing the core functionality – that of a mail client. I use version 37.0. It does everything I want it to do and I opt out of automatic updates. When I did update once and got an unwanted calender function I changed the version back again. The same goes for many other stand alone programs I use that do exactly what I want and have not been updated for years.

    My point is this. Do we really need to keep changing the core software in favour of so called improvements which are often just cosmetic and obscure the prime reason the software is downloaded. Surely it is best to keep a workable and acceptable version and just concentrate on avoiding any security holes. Add ons will placate the more demanding minority.

    I apologise in advance if this comment is in the wrong place. I don’t comment on anything usually but looked at my Thunderbird today and thought about how much I loved it. When I found out Mozillla had basically offloaded it I felt I wanted to comment on a one-off basis in case the new maintainers felt they needed to make any dramatic changes to keep it popular.