Thunderfork: Canonical’s Chance To Expand Its Ecosystem With Thunderbird


Bipolar Disorder

With the recent news that Mozilla will no longer be innovating with new versions of Thunderbird, many Ubuntu users might be left wondering what this will mean for their favorite distribution’s default suite of software.  In fact, it seems like Canonical has had it’s hands full over the last two years trying to find a winning combination.  Canonical has thrown it’s hands up in the air before and changed default software on a whim, most famously switching from enterprise friendly Evolution to user-friendly and mainstream Thunderbird.  Also, it chose to abandon the stellar Banshee player in favor of the more homely and less feature-rich Rhythmbox.

This of course is not a terrible trend.  Canonical has been trying to differentiate itself for years and is just now finding it’s style-stride with Unity.  As releases come and go, you can expect that Unity will continue to distance itself from it’s birth-mother, Gnome, and move in an independent –literally less dependent — direction, as it continues to fork the projects it is built on.  Ubuntu’s recent decision to fork the Gnome Control Center is pure evidence of this. Thunderbird should be part of that cord-cutting process too.

PR Hero

Now it is not exactly the best PR move to stand on the proverbial shoulders of giants, only to take that enormous effort and repackage it.  Canonical has already suffered this once with its move to Unity.  Of course they have completely recovered from it and Unity is now an accepted and familiar desktop environment.  One that sets Ubuntu apart from the pack and that users of Ubuntu are finally coming to terms with.  Now that Thunderbird will only be receiving maintenance updates with no new features, this is the perfect time for Canonical to strike.

It seems like the best move possible to gain a little more face with the mainstream.  Take over development of a massive open-source project and mold it to fit Canonical’s idea of what an email client should be.  In fact, what better way to get your name out to Windows and Mac users of Thunderbird!  ‘Hi, we’re Ubuntu and this is our mail-client.  It’s feature-rich and there is a version available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Android and iOS.  Oh, by the way, we have an operating system too.’  It’s not a bad way to get new users of Ubuntu One either.  What a perfect pairing of software and services that could be.

Looking back at the not so distant past when Thunderbird became the default client in Ubuntu, the move was obvious.  They needed a name.  They wanted to be able to say that they shipped with a world-class, famous email client, while users of Mac OS X were stuck with the over simplified Mail and Windows users with Windows Live Mail.  Of course, users who are interested in Thunderbird have always just been a download away from having it for their platform.  Everything is a PR move, right?

It Just Makes Sense

Thunderbird integration in Unity is a hack-job.  That’s not to say that it’s bad, but they have simply done what needed to be done to make it attractive and increase the perception that it is actually an integrated product.  Forking Thunderbird and bending it to fit the will of Ubuntu, makes sense.  Forking a project that is essentially dead will only make them look like heroes.  Forking the project and making a version available for Android and iOS to gain adoption, increase mind-share and raise the visibility of it’s cloud services is simply genius.  Canonical would be foolish to not be considering this path right this very minute.

As it stands, adoption of Thunderbird across platforms has been steadily dropping for some time.  That’s because the experience is polarizing, especially is you use a mobile device to check your email.  Doubly so if you are a user of Gmail.  For one thing, Gmail as a web client is simply wonderful.  Second, Gmail labels are exclusive to Gmail and that is easily the single best feature.  Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you had a client for Android that supported Gmail labels.  Not only that, but this client supported multiple emails addresses and had the ability to apply labels within those accounts as well.  Better yet, imagine that your labels and accounts and all other configurations are synced across all the platforms that you use with Ubuntu One.  It’s that sort of unique offering that will not only set an Ubuntu-forked version of Thunderbird apart from everything else, but also Ubuntu One.  Canonical has a real chance to shine here.


Everything you just read is wishful thinking at this point.  Obviously Canonical forges it’s own path and the ultimate fate of the Thunderbird code-base is up in the air, but there is one one other organization that should be dripping with saliva to continue development of Thunderbird.  The Document Foundation.  Libre Office is surrounded with nothing but positive press lately.  They’ve taken an archaic and patchy codebase and are gradually turning it into a clean, innovative and stable suite of applications.  As the only real competitor to Microsoft Office, they are missing one key component.  An enterprise quality e-mail client with exchange capabilities.

The existing codebase of Thunderbird would be a great starting point for them, but only time will tell.

Agree?  Disagree?  Sound off in the comments below.  What are you using now to manage multiple accounts on a mobile device?  We want to hear about it.

About Dean Howell

Aside from being a huge Sega fan, Dean is an LPIC certified Linux professional with over a decade experience. In addition to spending his free time burning through the classics from Sega and evangelizing open source, he's also the editor-in-cheif of The Powerbase.
  • jon_downfromthetrees

    >>”… users of Mac OS X were stuck with the over simplified Mail…”


    Now, Sparrow really is a simplified mail client for OS X. Still quite capable, but with the clutter of umpteen options and features that plague Thunderbird, Evolution, et al. I’d rather see Canonical go that route (adopt Postler or Geary?).

  • georgezilla

    ” … Of course they have completely recovered from it … ”

    Lol. No. Unity still sucks. And I haven’t and will not be going back to Ubuntu. Not as long as there is Unity.

    Unity, G3 and Metro are for, still, people who’s shoe size is larger then their I.Q..

    And of course now those low IQ people will flame my backside. But that’s ok. It gives them something to do that stimulates their brains. Which using the 3 “new” DEs does not do.

    So …..

    • Tyler

      Yes please, that makes you so intelligent not only dissing an entire desktop environment (which granted, if you don’t like something, thats your right), but then to attack its entire user base? Attacking the environment is one thing, attacking a user-base just makes you seem no better than most of the Apple fanboys out there.

      I am the kind of person that’ll give a desktop environment a weeks test, just to put it through its paces. I’ve used Unity with each release of Ubuntu since 11.04, and have messed with GNOME-Shell here and there.

      The conclusion I have come to with Unity is that it is not a tablet interface as people like to make the assertion of, but instead, it is actually a very keyboard shortcut driven interface. I’ve really only found one machine I do enjoy using it on, and that is on my laptop, because that is where the interface actually makes a good bit of sense. The interface can be configured to where all the large items can be hidden away until you need them, and you can do most of what you need in the interface through the keyboard, and that is EVEN more true with the introduction of the HUD.

      As for desktops? One can get away with using Unity on a single monitor, but right now Compiz (not necessarily Unity) is broken on multiple monitors. The desktop switcher and Expose plugins don’t work as they should, which inheritly creates usability problems for Unity, which is based upon Compiz. There is a whole specification on what is gonna be done to fix those issues in future releases called the “Unity Spread”, which I have to say, would end up dooing a lot more for multi-monitor usability issues than GNOME has ever cared about, and nice little extras like I dunno, a separate wallpaper per monitor. 😉 But my desktop environment of choice for my desktop is either KDE4.x or XFCE.

      But hey, what is my point in saying all this again? Oh wait, yes, not everybody has the same preferences, or works in the same way. not everybody has the same needs. Just because they choose to use a different environment than you, and maybe enjoy tweaking it, configuring it differently, or hey, taking advantage of it, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more or less stupid. Making assumptions like that makes one arrogant, and puts them in the same category as Apple zealots. 😀 And hey, you don’t want to be like an Apple zealot, do you?

      I will agree with you on one thing though, Metro does not belong on the regular desktop. Although, I really wouldn’t mind using it on a custom gaming rig that is dedicated to gaming only, well, as long as I’m controlling Metro with a controller/remote and not a mouse. 😀 It’d be like a supped up xBox 360, much more supped up.

    • I’m the watermelon

      Is it cold in your basement?

    • Knighthawk5193

      There really ISN’T a reason to insult others. The whole point & purpose of Linux & the Open Source Community is: CHOICE! What YOU choose to use on YOUR desktop/laptop may not be what I CHOOSE! And THAT’S what makes Linux the ultimate in computing. not the way the desktop environment “allows” or “doesn’t allow” you to do things…you should be bigger than that, and if you don’t like Unity…Gnome..or any OTHER OS desktop…..then DON’T USE IT! But to insult others because of an OS’es failure to impres you…well…… a word….it’s just stupid. This is what made using Windows and Apple such a burden, that being “locked into” what THEY thought you wanted in a desktop environment. I’ve left the Windows world forever because of the freedom I have using Fedora…Ubuntu…Linux Mint, PeppermintOS…CEntOS and others….and I may not like the interface of Linux Mint….or I may not really care for the style of CEntOS, but if that’s the case I just wouldn’t use it…I wouldn’t curse the developers or the people who actually find it to their liking….well I’m not going to rant about it….you do as you see fit, and I’ll do the same…and we’ll never have to get in each other’s way over it!

  • Vadim Peretokin

    I don’t agree at all. They’re already stretched on developers trying to make their own stuff work. Mozilla is, I’m fairly certain, still way bigger than Canonical is.

  • Benjamin Kerensa

    I made this suggestion already regarding a fork but in reality it is very unlikely that Canonical will be taking on a new product like this.

    • Dean Howell

      Wishful thinking I suppose, or just wild speculation on my part. Either it will be interesting to see what happens with Thunderbird in the long-run. I read you post about this after you commented. Very nice blog and a great addition to my feed. Welcome to The Powerbase!

  • daengbo

    A better choice would be to leverage U1 as the service of note: mail, chat, microblog, seamless LibreOffice integration and sharing, etc. A Google Apps or Office 365 (though more likely, Zoho-ish) ffering from Canonical. Thunderbird could tie into this, or not. Not many people use local e-mail clients anymore, anyway.

  • gumb

    Yeah that’s right, just go and fork, fork, fork for one distro’s own selfish ends, in this case a perfectly open product that is not dead and will go on receiving bug fix and security updates. Why not simply contribute to the development of the existing product? No need to fork it. Mozilla are open to the community still improving the program. And then everybody will benefit from whatever improvements you are proposing.

    That share and share-alike concept is supposed to be one of the great principles of open source. Yanking the best bits of others’ work to build your own merry cult ecosystem and semi-walled garden, is a second-best choice that should be reserved for more desperate times when the existing rights holders are being uncooperative or holding the code hostage.

    Forking might also be a common tool in the open source landscape but to adopt it with such abandon, seemingly in your proposal without even trying to investigate the first option of working with the existing developers, shows the sort of rotten spirit that drives the open source world apart and makes it harder for anyone, Canonical included, to build a solid platform on its foundations.

    • Dean Howell

      It may seem a little paradoxical –and it is –but the desire to have all effort behind Thunderbird alone in a community supported capacity is just a selfish and a company forking it. As a user, you might benefit from a heavily developed Thunderbird –or any other application for that matter– where canonical, as a company benefits monetarily from forking.

      Consider this, Do you think that KDE needs Calligra as an office suite, or would those efforts be better spend as contributions to Libre Office. Libre Office would benefit from a boost in innovation, but users will suffer from the lack of choice…

      Canonical forking Thunderbird is not radical, though it does present an opportunity for Thunderbird to be bent into something radically different that can be used instead of vanilla Thunderbird. I’ll take choice over a big monolithic entity any day of the week.

      • gumb

        Your Calligra analogy is nonsensical. Calligra and LibreOffice are two entirely separate projects; one has not been derived from the other. Just as Thunderbird and Evolution are completely separate. A better reference would be LibreOffice vs OpenOffice or KOffice vs Calligra. Having two unrelated projects with dedicated developers in healthy competition with each other is fine. What you’re proposing is more akin to these latter examples, fragmenting the community and dividing the efforts of one existing project.

        And in this case, a cross-platform app with a significant user base on Windows, Mac, Linux and Unix, but which you feel a Linux distro should take responsibility for, to the potential chagrin of those many millions on other platforms, some of whom are current Thunderbird contributors.

        So in your equation, current development overseen by a non-profit primarily occupied with developing one software product, but working on others with the worldwide community (the ‘big monolithic entity’), is better replaced by ‘choice’, which in your terms would be development by an international multi-million pound profit-making corporation working with hardware partners and OEMs to deliver a wide range of software products, devices, services and support. So no big monolithic entity there.

    • ikt123

      “Yeah that’s right, just go and fork, fork, fork”

      Yes! Fork or die!

  • IGnatius T Foobar

    I take exception to your false claim that “they have completely recovered from it and Unity is now an accepted and familiar desktop environment.” Ubuntu jumped the shark with Unity and users abandoned it in droves. Perhaps it is “accepted and familiar” among the few users you have left, but Ubuntu is now a has-been *because* of Unity.

  • IGnatius T Foobar

    Now if Canonical wants to do something *useful* with Thunderbird, they ought to turn the out-of-the-box build of Thunderbird into a full blown groupware client that can access mail, calendar, address books, etc. on an open source groupware server (citadel or kolab or whatever) without having to add a bunch of clumsy extensions and without having to configure each one manually.

  • Steven Oliver

    While I agree with you, Yorba’s new Geary client will undoubtedly become feature rich enough in a very short amount of time to compete. Especially if Yorba’s history with Shotwell is an indicator.

    We all love Thunderbird, but if you’re honest with yourself you have admit it needs a good clean rewrite from the ground up. It always has, and probably, always will, feel like a big hack.

  • Projectzme Uk

    Linux users are a tetchy bunch ain’t they, if it’s broken did you report it, can you code? Help fix it..

    This is a good idea, Linux does need all the PR help it can get, love it or hate it Linux would have died due to lack of innovation if it wasn’t for ubuntu, taking the risk of unity, accepting evolution was crap and ditching it..

  • Pingback: Links 10/7/2012: Thunderbird Put to Rest, Catchup with Free/Open Source News | Techrights()

  • Pingback: Fail Client: How Linux Fails At The Corporate Desktop()

  • Wordy

    Please: “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”. Use “its” for the possessive case. Your misuse here made it tough to follow an otherwise interesting idea, as my skin kept crawling.

  • Sylvain Picker

    Makes me dream of an email lens, the look would be very modern, access nearly instant (push on the ubuntu key and click email icon), one icon less in the unity left bar. That would be awesome.

  • Knighthawk5193

    I have been an avid user of Thundebird since the 11.0 version, and for me it’s been just what I wanted it to be, and e-mail client I can install,…and use to gather and sort my email from Google, Yahoo,AOL,Hotmail,…I don’t have a need to attacth to a mail server, and for me that makes it even more user-friendly, all I do is fire up my laptop, open up TB and I’m done! Why not have those people who think it could be better, jump in and make it better? Isn’t that what Open Source is all about?..a group of people who work together to make something that isn’t it’s best..a lot better?….well I for one would do it…IF I knew how to do it!..LoL!

  • Pingback: KDE Welcomes Trojita, Offers Multiple E-Mail Clients()

  • Pingback: KDE Welcomes Trojitá, Offers Multiple E-Mail Clients | OpenSource.Cipto.US()