The Thunderbird email client is a true standard. Over the years, there have been countless email clients for various operating systems. None has come close to making the impact on the open source community of Mozilla's Thunderbird. In this article, I’ll dive deep into what makes Thunderbird email relevant in 2016.
Thunderbird email has a long history. Years ago, the functionality we've come to enjoy in Thunderbird was baked into what was once called the Mozilla Suite. This application provided the Mozilla browser and email capabilities we enjoy today in two separate programs.
In 2003, Mozilla presented a new phase in how they offered software to their users. Instead of primarily focusing only on a single integrated suite, Mozilla would release two separate programs – Phoenix and Minotaur. Over time, these two projects evolved into the now super-popular Firefox and Thunderbird.
At it's most popular, Thunderbird was an email client application that supported OP and IMAP email. Unlike proprietary alternatives, it was unique in that it wasn't a Windows or OS X only application. Thunderbird was an email client that offered first class support to various Linux distributions as well. Even if you ran a distro that made its installation difficult, a Thunderbird user could download a compressed directory, decompress it and run Thunderbird from within their home directory. It was a game changer for many folks.
As time went on, Thunderbird email began seeing the same level of extension development that was found with Firefox. Obviously the extensions for Thunderbird were usually a bit different, as they were design to support email demands. The most popular extensions were contact lists, OpenPGP, inbox sorting, as well as menu tweaking extensions.
Unfortunately not all of the extensions have been kept up to date. Especially with each new release of Thunderbird. Despite this challenge, the extensions I have come to rely on include:
Lightning – Lightning allows me to manage a calendar in a PIM-like (personal information manager) format.
Provider for Google Calendar – Since I rely on Google calendar, "Provider for Google Calendar" provides me with Google calendar access in Lightning. It allows me to sync back and forth reliably, too.
gContactSync – Since I have many contacts that I sync with my Android phone and Google account, accessing them from my Thunderbird client has proven to be quite helpful thanks in part to gContactSync.
Today's messages – Hardly a critical extension, the Today's Messages extension allows me to sort through email with some degree of ease. I can single out emails that came in today, this week or this month – even with multiple email accounts.
Exchange EWS Provider – Despite being a Linux user, I also work with a company that requires access to their Microsoft Exchange server. Rather than limit myself to Web access, I use Exchange EWS Provider to add Exchange calendar, task and contact syncing to Lightning inside of Thunderbird.
ExQuilla for Microsoft Exchange – The final piece for me being able to access Exchange data via Thunderbird is ExQuilla. This extension provides me with non-IMAP email functionality. This means I can connect to my the company's Exchange server to read my email.
Even though access to Thunderbird email means a lot to the open source community, there's a problem without a clear solution. Apparently Mozilla is ready to cut the cord with Thunderbird. The goal is for the Mozilla team to focus exclusively on Firefox's future. As things stand now, Thunderbird is still receiving minor updates, to keep it compatible and secure with various operating systems. But deeper development has come to a complete stop. No new features are planned for Mozilla Thunderbird.
There has been a ton of speculation that perhaps Thunderbird can find a home with one of the various software foundations out there. And at this time, it's incredibly difficult to say for sure what's going to happen. One thing is for sure – if Thunderbird disappeared, alternative email clients aren't going to take it's place.
Some folks will point out that if Thunderbird disappears, there are other alternatives available. And granted, some of them don't look half bad – though none of them have Thunderbird's extension options. Some folks might be inclined to switch exclusively to Web mail, others would likely gravitate to alternative Linux email applications instead.
Speaking for myself, I'd be more inclined to hope that a fork of Thunderbird known as FossaMail would become my saving grace. Based on my tests, it appears that the extensions I depend on would indeed work with this application. The only issue I see is how dependent on the Thunderbird base it is for its own survival. In short, if Thunderbird goes away, what would happen to FossaMail?
Looking back at an article I wrote about Web mail in earlier this year, I can't help but wonder if everything there stands. Is Web mail killing the need for software like Thunderbird? I certainly hope not, but sadly I've found most "regular" folks couldn't care less. They're gleefully using Web clients without a second thought. I think the reason this has happened is that folks don't fully grasp how valuable it can be to have a local copy of your email.
Perhaps more than anything, is the value of having a local copy of your email. If you've ever deleted something by accident or been locked out of a Web account, you know what I'm talking about. Data loss is a horrible thing to experience. Local email clients like Thunderbird give us the opportunity to have our email stored locally...even if it's deleted elsewhere. This is possible because the settings allow for IMAP accounts to keep a local copy handy. Thunderbird even allows you to take this a step further and choose to save copies of your email in a separate directory. This functionality can be found in the Copies and Folders section of your Thunderbird settings.
Another feature you won't likely find with most Web email is the ability to attach a digital signing certificate to your email account. This can help you to prove your identity. Taking it even further, you can also encrypt your email should you wish to. It's this kind of critical functionality that Thunderbird gives us that I don't think most people realize. And even if home users don't care, I suspect that there are likely some enterprise users who would be interested in learning more about this functionality.
Whether or not you use Thunderbird email, no one can deny that it’s one of the most influential email clients in history – from its accessibility to those on proprietary operating systems needing something reliable, to those of us on Linux who really enjoyed its features over the years.
With the possible exception of LibreOffice (OpenOffice), Thunderbird was often an introduction into the world of open source software. And from this, came a community that brought us amazing Thunderbird extensions that furthered Thunderbird's value for us all.
What say you? Are you a fan of Thunderbird? Perhaps you have other email clients that you prefer instead? Whatever your view, hit the comments and sound off. I'm especially interested in hearing opinions of what you think will happen to Thunderbird email as Mozilla continues to lose interest in it.