Making Thunderbird Financially Sustainable: How it Could Work

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 11, 2010

Mozilla Messaging is looking forward to a big year in 2010 including Thunderbird 3.1 and figuring out how to make the project financially sustainable. Making Thunderbird better is the easier part. Figuring out how to make money as a project is another story entirely.

No doubt the next release of Thunderbird, currently code-named Lanikai, will do a lot to win users. Lanikai will focus on making the upgrade from Thunderbird 2 more gradual, and improving on the Thunderbird 3 platform. This means fixes for IMAP, stability and memory improvements, interface enhancements, and improvements to message filters and Smart Folders. The 3.1 release is avoiding disruptive changes and the team is shooting for a May release. The bigger challenge ahead for Moz Messaging is how to pay for itself.

Mozilla has supported itself primarily via Firefox and its relationship with Google. This has done well by the Foundation at least through its last posted financial statement for 2008. The foundation has brought in upwards of $75 million in 2007 and 2008, with expenses of nearly $50 million in 2008, funding 200 full and part-time people to work on Mozilla globally.

Messaging was split off in 2008 to focus on email and Internet communications. The promise then was that the project would find ways to fund itself. Unlike Firefox, Thunderbird doesn't have a natural business partner or partners to bring in funds. David Ascher, who heads Mozilla Messaging, says that the project will look for models that are of benefit to the users:

We're specifically looking to identify business models that create economic value by improving the user experience of Thunderbird users. This is nothing new for Mozilla. The foundations of an open source codebase, the ability for users to opt-out of commercial relationships, and an architecture that allows plugging in alternative providers for whatever service or product we end up partnering with are non-negotiable requirements. With that as a foundation, we're looking for ways to make the online life of our users better, and within those ways, identifying those which can help ensure Thunderbird’s long life.

This will happen through a set of public opt-in experiments. For each business model that we try, we'll build a prototype, announce it, get data to evaluate it, solicit feedback from users, and evaluate whether it's worth continuing. Anecdotal data suggests that plenty of Thunderbird users are happy to be offered commercial services which provide them value and help Mozilla too.

Ascher also says he's going to try to "open source" the business model and development activities for Messaging. The biggest problem I see for Thunderbird and Messaging tools like Raindrop is that they are add-ons for existing services, where the vendors have control of the full stack and a direct relationship with the user. It isn't necessarily true that desktop e-mail provides a better experience. Google can roll out features to Gmail far faster than Mozilla, and can offer a full suite of tools. Zimbra has its own server and client tools. Microsoft, well, that doesn't require a lot of explanation.

Things have changed a lot since Netscape had an integrated mail reader, which was subsequently broken out of the Mozilla Suite to create a leaner application which is now the world's second-most popular Web browser. For many users, Thunderbird can't provide a complete solution the way that other tools can. The Moz folks have done a great job integrating with services like Gmail — but many users wind up just going right back to Gmail.

As Mozilla Messaging looks to monetize its services, the project should think strongly about providing a top-to-bottom solution. Not just connecting with other services, but providing the mail hosting and services that users want. Mozilla Messaging and (which provides the popular microblogging service) seem like natural allies, for example. I'm not entirely sure what a successful model would look like — but merely providing a client or add-on for existing services doesn't seem the surest path to success. And I do want to see Mozilla succeed here, for a couple of reasons. One, the Mozilla folks are ultimately focused on doing what's right for the user first, and the group has a strong commitment to privacy, security, and enabling an open Internet. Secondly, successful open source models that work for Mozilla Messaging might work for other FLOSS projects and working funding models for independent projects are sorely needed

If you think you have ideas that might lead Mozilla Messaging to success, the group has a job for a business development lead. And Ascher invites interested parties to touch base with him at the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group meeting next week in San Francisco.