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I have used Thunderbird off and on since about 2003. I started using it on Windows and then installed it onto my Linux PCs later on. The point is: Thunderbird is near and dear to my heart.
Unfortunately over the past few years Thunderbird's importance with Mozilla has faltered. Not because of anything negative, rather because Mozilla is trying to refocus their efforts with Firefox. Most recently, the news that Mozilla is finally letting Thunderbird go took a lot of folks by complete surprise. What was once loved by legions of users has now been placed onto the market for others to adopt it.
In today's article, we'll examine why this happened to Thunderbird and explore where email seems to be headed as a whole.
ISP email for email client software
There was a time not so many years ago when getting access to email meant having an ISP. Telco ISPs and various dial-up resellers used to provide their customers with email accounts that were incredibly limited and annoying to use. To use these accounts, you needed to first setup the account over the phone with your ISP. Next, you took the login credentials provided by your ISP, then configured local email clients like Outlook Express (Windows) to access them.
Then something called Hotmail came onto the scene. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first widely used web-based email option available. And while countless others soon appeared, Hotmail was a service that was first to free people from being married to their ISP assigned email accounts.
Hotmail offered another thing that was unique, you were free to access your email from any web browser from any desktop computer that had access to the Internet. While most people were still locked into using installed email clients to access their ISP email accounts, Hotmail users were empowered with a taste of freedom.
Webmail in 2016
Flash forward to 2016 and there's no question that Web mail has overtaken locally installed email clients for most people. The exception to this rule is with medium to large companies. I've discovered that in addition to their usage of older operating systems, they still rely heavily on Microsoft Outlook in conjunction with an Exchange server.
For the self-employed and home users out there, Web mail wins hands down. It's cleaner, accessible from anywhere and quite frankly looks better. Pair this fact with Mozilla's move to put their exclusive focus onto Firefox and it's clear that the consensus is that Web mail is the winner overall.
Now this begs the question: why are some people still using email clients? It's been my experience that it's usually a matter of consistency, control and the ability to access ones email without Internet reliance. That last part is a bit of carry over from the days of dial-up Internet, however there is something to be said about having your email backed up locally if the server hosting it goes "poof."
I've personally never heard of large deployments of Thunderbird being used in medium to large sized businesses. Part of this is due to Microsoft's stranglehold in the enterprise market, but the other side of it is that Thunderbird has been in development limbo for years. Unlike offerings from Google or Zimbra, Thunderbird is a bit of a legacy commitment that Mozilla gave up on a long time ago.
To be frank, the only option I see possibly dethroning Microsoft in the enterprise space will be Google. They've already made huge progress with colleges and non-profits. Plus, new companies are switching to managed Google services in place of Exchange all the time.
Is this the end of Thunderbird?
I believe we'll see Thunderbird continue to be used despite the project changing hands away from Mozilla. From advanced users looking to run their own mail servers with a local client to read its content, down to the casual Linux enthusiast who simply wants a local copy of their email.
Then there are folks such as myself who simply prefer to have a dedicated application for reading email. I use Thunderbird because I can access my IMAP/POP3 email accounts along with MS Exchange. Yes, lots of people are locked into Exchange for work...but like me, many would rather use a proper client like Thunderbird that is supported on Linux. Unlike Evolution, however, Thunderbird will require an add-on to properly connect to Exchange email services. A work-a-round is to have your Exchange admin enable IMAP email.
No, I don't believe we'll be seeing Thunderbird going anywhere. It's still very popular despite Mozilla dropping it off with the first foundation that shows any interest in it. The biggest threat to Thunderbird will end up being competing clients.
Alternative email software clients
Thunderbird is incredibly customizable and resilient. But in terms of its outward appearance, it's starting to feel a bit dated. Worse yet is that competing clients such as Nylas N1 and Geary have stepped up their game in terms of providing a cleaner UI.
Geary, for example, is very simple and rather limited when compared to Thunderbird. However for someone looking to plugin their Gmail or ISP email account into it, Geary would work nicely for most people. Where Thunderbird is far more complex and advanced with its settings, Geary is designed as a set it and forget it email client.
Then there's Nylas N1. Well, let's just say that if you're fine with running your email through their servers then it's a good option for you. Bundle its feature set like speed and quick replies with the plugin system for extending the client's capabilities, N1 does look like a pretty sweet option.
Now some of you may cry privacy concerns with regard to using Nylas N1. I have a news flash for you – your email isn't encrypted unless you took extra measures to do so. Therefore unless you're doing some SSH/IMAP routing with Claws Mail, get off your privacy high horse.
This is especially ridiculous if you're concerned about running a Web mail like Gmail through Nylas N1. Google is far scarier than anything the Nylas N1 are going to do with your personal correspondence. Considering most folks are using email clients to simply connect to Web mail services anyway, the idea of email privacy is largely a moot issue. Not because it's not important, rather because privacy starts with encryption...not the client we choose to use.
So what of Thunderbird? Does it have a future? It's my humble opinion that for the masses, Web mail has almost killed the need for a local email client. However, enterprise users and geeks like us will always have a special place in our hearts for a locally installed email client. And for many Linux enthusiasts, that means Thunderbird!
What say you? Do you love Thunderbird as much as I do? Perhaps it's Claws Mail or forget it? Whatever your email preference happens to be, hit the Comments and tell me about it!