Open Source Advent Calendar: The Thunderbird Mail Program
It’s an advent calendar for tech-savvy people. In the fully commercialized digital world, almost everything is owned by a large internet company. Their software is neither open nor free. As an alternative, there is this small island of the open source world: software whose code is publicly visible and can be independently verified for possible security breaches and backdoors. Software that can be freely used, distributed and improved. Often the motivation for work is simply the joy of providing something useful to the company.
Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1 to 24. These are the functions of the respective software, pitfalls, history, context, and funding. Some projects are supported by an individual, others by a loosely organized community, a tightly managed foundation with full-time staff, or a consortium. The work is done entirely on a voluntary basis, or it is funded through donations, cooperation with internet companies, government funding, or an open source business model. Whether it is a single application or a complex ecosystem, whether it is a PC program, an application or an operating system, the diversity of open source is overwhelming.
Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1 to 24. These are the functions of the respective software, pitfalls, history, context, and funding.
December 14: The Thunderbird email program
If you don’t want to spend money on Microsoft’s Outlook program, you can use Thunderbird as an alternative. The email program belongs to the Mozilla family. However, family relations have been strained for a long time.
Thunderbird is an email program for the PC. As of November 2021, eight million people used Thunderbird daily. Especially in Germany, the project is strong: 22% of the installations come from here. The software is under a Mozilla 2.0 Public License. There are no smartphone apps. According to Thunderbird, they are often questioned and discussed. As of yet, there are no concrete plans or decisions.
Mail slipped onto the computer
A Thunderbird account is quick to set up – just enter the respective email address and password. With most email providers, you need to enable automated access first. At Gmx.de and many other providers, you can do this with one click in the settings. With Telekom addresses, you must enter a separate password. If one or more accounts are configured, Thunderbird retrieves new mails and saves them locally on the computer as soon as the program is started and online. Now you can also write and send messages comfortably from your own computer.
In standard mode, Thunderbird only copies messages to the computer as long as they remain with the email provider (IMAP mode). Alternatively, you can set that messages are deleted online after downloading, immediately or after a certain number of days (POP3 mode). A Thunderbird sideline is a built-in calendar. With the help of several hundred add-ons, additional functions can be added. The most popular is an extension for synchronization with Google Calendar. Also among the favorites is an add-on for better organization of folders and synchronization messages. If you are not satisfied with the simple gray-white-blue appearance of the program, you can use the program to set about 100 themes.
For many years it took an add-on called Enigmail to encrypt emails. However, since August 2020, end-to-end encryption based on OpenPGP has been integrated as the main function. This can be set up in less than ten clicks. Thunderbird creates two small text files: a public key that others can use to send you encrypted emails, and a corresponding private key that makes them readable again.
Thunderbird shares much of its source code and history with the Firefox browser. It all started in the mid-90s when Netscape Communications lost the “browser wars” with Microsoft. As a result of the defeat, the software was released, and the Mozilla Foundation was founded in 2003. This created two individual applications from the original Netscape Communicator program package: the Firefox browser, version 1.0 of which appeared. in November 2004, and Thunderbird email client, which followed a month later.
Drama in the Mozilla House
Since then, both programs have been part of the Mozilla family. In this, however, a family drama soon began: the foundation wanted to get rid of Thunderbird, and in 2007 envisioned what a future might look like outside of Mozilla. Five years later, the foundation cut support and announced that there would only be security updates and no new features. At the end of 2015, the boss of Mozilla, Mitchell Baker, became very clear and demanded in an unequivocal message to finally outsource the program. The two family members would interfere with each other. An overwhelming majority in Mozilla management would prefer to focus on the Firefox browser, which could have an industry-wide impact. And “with all due respect”: Thunderbird doesn’t have such potential.
Mozilla requested an expert opinion, which suggested three different scenarios: Thunderbird will find accommodation with the German Document Foundation, the organization behind LibreOffice, with the Software Freedom Conservancy in the US or become a stand-alone subsidiary of Mozilla. By mid-2017, it was clear the drama would come to an end. Thunderbird was allowed to stay, but the Mozilla Foundation would only be a “legal and fiscal home,” while Thunderbird takes care of the rest of the development itself.
MZLA Technologies Corporation
Established as a legal entity of Thunderbird in October 2019, MZLA Technologies Corporation as a 100% subsidiary of Mozilla, based in California. The managing director was Mark Surman, who is also the managing director of the Mozilla Foundation. As start-up capital, MZLA Technologies Corporation received from Mozilla’s 2019 annual report an injection of approximately $ 1.6 million and $ 120,000 in support of current expenses. Thunderbird has been managing and funding itself ever since. The supreme body is the council (Thunderbird Council) chosen by the community. Taking part in the election can help those who have worked at Thunderbird for at least ten hours a year in the past, whether in the form of code contributions, translations, or support. In the last elections in September 2021, the electorate was made up of 134 people. The chairman of the board is Philipp Kewisch from Hamburg, who works full time at Mozilla in the Firefox add-ons team.
The board is in charge of Thunderbird, Kewisch told heise online: “The board is currently the highest decision-making body of the project and takes on a large number of tasks. The board of directors of MZLA Technologies Corporation, on the other hand, has legal decision-making power and responsibility, but works hand-in-hand with the board to implement decisions made there within the legally permitted framework. “
Thunderbird stands on its own two feet
In the spring of 2021, Thunderbird treasurer Ryan Sipes submitted the annual report for 2020. While the Firefox project is funded by a research agreement with Google and lives on a large scale, Thunderbird has so far been funded almost exclusively. – and at a much more modest level – by donations. He raised $ 2.3 million in 2020, the result of a steady increase since 2017 when it was around $ 700,000.
In 2021, revenue was down slightly from 2020. In 2020, Mozilla had 15 employees. According to Kewisch, there are now just under 20. Thunderbird currently has four announced numbers and one filled with many Roadmap projects. The great autonomy of Firefox’s little brother, not always loved, in the circle of the great Mozilla family works.
The work on the article series is based in part on a grant “Neustart Kultur” from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, awarded by VG Wort.
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