Mozilla Has Big Plans for Thunderbird in 2019

Posted on January 3, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud with 25 Comments

The Mozilla Foundation this week announced that it has big plans to modernize its Thunderbird email client in 2019, improving its performance, usability, and look and feel. In doing so, it will add staff and try to catch up technologically with more modern email clients.

“We start the new year with the hiring of some new staff to the Thunderbird team,” Thunderbird community manager Ryan Sipes writes. “Which will put us at as many as 14 full-time members on our staff. This opens up a world of possibilities for what we are able to accomplish.”

In mid-2017, Mozilla moved its Thunderbird email client to the Mozilla Foundation, and it moved the project to a donation-based revenue model. This, apparently, has worked out well: Sipes says that its ability to hire new employees is entirely due to an uptick in donations.

And like Firefox, Mozilla’s more famous product, Thunderbird is updated regularly. The Foundation celebrated the release of Thunderbird 60 this past August, adding a new “Photon” look and feel based on the Firefox user experience, a new logo, and improvements to attachments, calendaring, and more. The organization is currently testing Thunderbird 65 in its Beta channel.

Despite this pace of change, Thunderbird remains a decidedly old-fashioned email client in ways that are obvious to users and internally. So the Mozilla Foundation is hoping to step it up in 2019 and modernize this aging email client in the following ways:

Improved performance. Mozilla seeks to improve Thunderbird’s “UI slowness and general performance issues across the application” in the short term. And then it will look into leveraging “new, faster technologies in rewriting parts of Thunderbird as well as working toward a multi-process Thunderbird” in the future.

Improved aesthetics. It’s perhaps an understatement to say that Thunderbird is old-fashioned: It looks like an email client designed in the 1990s, with a multi-pane, folder-based user interface and weird, browser-like support for tabs. So Mozilla has worked with Ura Design on a number of UX initiatives, and it has created a UX team that will move the product in-line with a detailed style guide that promises a more modern look and feel.

Improved usability. Mozilla will improve the usability of this ancient application in several ways, but the most interesting area, perhaps, falls under the integration category. Here, Thunderbird will be updated to integrate better with unique features in popular online services, like Gmail, and with the underlying client platform, so that it supports native notifications.

Current version of Thunderbird

Whether Thunderbird will ever evolve into a truly modern email client that we can generally recommend to others is unclear, but my early testing of the existing beta release was not positive. It’s like going back in time, and not the good kind. But maybe 2019 will mark a turnaround for this product. And given the weak selection of third-party email clients, in particular on Windows, that would be a welcome change.

Thunderbird is available for free on Windows, Mac, and Linux, but you’re welcome to donate to the cause if you use the product as well.

Tagged with ,

Join the discussion!


Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Comments (25)

25 responses to “Mozilla Has Big Plans for Thunderbird in 2019”

  1. LocalPCGuy

    I've used Thunderbird since it originally came out. It's faster than Outlook and is easier to work with, for me. I like the more efficient use of screen space. Perhaps if I had stayed with Outlook, I'd be partial to it now instead.

  2. XlibertyX

    Thunderbird user for many years mainly because I've set up folders across multiple (about 10) company email accounts (and 1 gmail account) and filters so that whenever I receive an email from a particular customer or vendor, it immediately pops into that customer/vendor folder. Makes finding old emails much quicker.

    Tried Outlook 2016 for one day and couldn't figure out how to accomplish this. Went back to Thunderbird.

  3. justme

    I use thunderbird as my email client. I am cautiously optimistic about this news.

    As to why why use an email client instead of a webmail client, there are a variety of reasons. Support for multiple accounts, offline access, configurable with extensions. The last there is a key point - I am sure there are those who can say Thunderbird lacks certain functionality. The beauty is you can almost always add what you think is missing via extensions - or not, if you don’t need that function. Further, as someone who is actively looking at OS alternatives to Windows 10, it is cross platform.

  4. waethorn

    I use Zoho Mail via web browser with a few custom domains. It has Outlook (Office, not .com)-level features with a dense desktop Win32-app like interface on the web.

  5. DaddyBrownJr

    I just downloaded and tested the current Thunderbird client. It is not good for hi-DPI monitors. Uninstalled, but I'll take another look when the new version comes out.

  6. leilabd

    I'm encouraged by this news. I've been using Thunderbird since about 2004 and still am. It's been a bit slow and clunky of late but still has the mix of features that I need:

    Support for multiple accounts, including Gmail, and pretty much anything that supports IMAP, support for Exchange is available with an add-on

    Works offline

    Syncs some or all messages with the mail store, as required, providing a form of backup

    Sync with Google contacts (using gContactSync add-on)

    Sync with Google calendar (using Provider for Google Calendar add-on)

    Includes a Usenet News Reader (don't ask!)

    It's lacking in some functionality natively due to lack of recent development effort, but most of the missing features are available via installable extensions.

    • wright_is

      In reply to leilabd:

      That is its biggest handicap today, that it has had a lack of recent development and a lot of features that should be native require third party plugins, which can be of varying quality.

  7. Alex Taylor

    As a long term Thunderbird user I'm cautiously optimistic at this news.

    More resources shouldn't be a bad thing, provided they're well deployed. While it's a mature product that I prefer to anything else I've used, some well directed love will be welcome.

    As for the "why not use webmail" queries, there are many ways in which Thunderbird works better for me.

    In no particular order:

    -Multiple accounts (own domain/IMAP plus Google accounts)

    -Flexible use of tabs

    -Offline access (and ability to snapshot on own hardware)

    -The search is awesome, especially the sidebar and time-line filters (and across all accounts simultaneously)

    -Readily configurable (to the commentor wanting a different Mark Read key, you can alter anything with the Keyconfig extend - even if CTRL-Q was a joke?)

    -Cross Platform

  8. will

    I am curious if Readdle might be working on something for Windows with Spark?

  9. remc86007

    Am I the only one that cannot stand the curved tab look? It looks so childish to me. It is a big reason I've never used Chrome.

    • Alex Taylor

      In reply to remc86007:

      No you're not alone.

      It was always trivial to change with an Extension, but even so I'm pretty sure that the stable release moved back to rectangular tabs last year. (of course reason I'm not certain is that I'd been using rectangular tabs already!)

  10. lvthunder

    So what would you classify as a truly modern email client? What is Thunderbird missing?

    • wright_is

      In reply to lvthunder:

      Look-and-feel just feels dated and the layout is often confusing.

      No Exchange support.

      Rudimentary GMail support - you need addons to get things like contacts and calendar working.

      SMIME and PGP are a faff to get working properly - we used it at my last employer, but it was forever crashing. I switched to Pigeon for encrypted email. I am now back on Outlook (which isn't perfect either).

      The initial set-up is where Outlook has its major advantage, in business. You open Outlook for the first time on a domain computer press Enter 3 times and your account is fully configured.

  11. CaedenV

    I hadn't thought about Thunderbird since... the 90's?

    Anywho, a client gave us their gmail export which was in a mbox format and we were stumped on how to open it for a bit, and somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind I thought I remember something about it being used for linux systems, and Thunderbird was about the only mail client of note for those, so we gave it a try and it worked like a charm! Kinda funny that now there is some news bout it a week later.

  12. henry_adams

    I hate, hate the 'tabs' in Thunderbird. It is such an inconsistent and backwards notion. Why do you try to make your client look like a broken webpage without a URL bar?

    I would love for Mozilla to 'copy' from Outlook here and have the Mail, calendar, contacts and tasks as permanent icons on the bottom left that switch to that function when selected. Break out your open messages in to separate windows please!

    When I have moved people to Thunderbird as a free alternative to Outlook this has been a a comment levelled at the project. It is confusing and needs to be changed.

    Although only available on Linux, Evolution is a PIM I would recommend. Much closer to outlook if you are looking for this type of client.

    If you only want basic e-mail support then often the website is enough, if you want more then you want a fuller featured client like Outlook. Come on mozilla step up and copy from the best here. But integrate Gmail, Yahoo etc and make it the best you possibly can do.

  13. david.thunderbird

    I'm worried and very skeptical they hired new and that means they have no history with the product "New and improved" usually means mucked up and functions moved or hidden.

  14. fishnet37222

    I actually enjoy using Thunderbird. It seems to sync better with my Gmail account than the Windows Mail app.

  15. jbinaz

    I'd be curious to know how many people use mail clients like Thunderbird and not a web interface. (I'm specifically talking for personal email and not corporate. I'm sure Outlook has lots of corporate users, such as me.)

    I know my step-mom uses it, although I'd honestly like to get her to move to a web based email.

    I've never really looked into it, but I'd be curious to know if it can sit as just a UI on top of Gmail or If so, does it recognize folders created on the web so they show up in Thunderbird? If not, then I'd say that's a pretty big limitation.

    • GeekWithKids

      In reply to jbinaz:

      I prefer using a desktop mail client because I can have multiple accounts in one interface.

      I have found no web interface that gives me that.

      Not to mention that having access to email when I'm not connected to the internet is helpful.

      I haven't used Thunderbird in a while, but usually you connect to your mailbox using IMAP so see the same thing as the web interface.

      • justs

        In reply to GeekWithKids:

        Agree that Thunderbird is one of the best desktop options for a multiple account setup. (I prefer it over Outlook, Mailbird, Shift, Kiwi, eM, or Inky

        As far as web options, MissiveApp and Spike are two solid options if you need aggregated inbox. (Missive has you covered on Win, Mac, Linux, web and mobile.)

        If you just need all your accounts simultaneously available in one place, Wavebox, Rambox, Station, Franz, and All-in-One Messenger are good options.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to jbinaz:

      Why do you care if your step-mom uses a dedicated email client or use a web based email? It's not like Thunderbird is hard to support.

    • fishnet37222

      In reply to jbinaz:

      I use Thunderbird as my desktop email client. It does recognize folders created on the web.

  16. jkbrent

    Thunderbird was just fine the way it was. It was essentially, pre-Windows 8 Office Outlook. It offered all the functions, without all the nonsense and stupidity. With Outlook now a complete mess, and absolutely useless if you download it for Mac, I guess Mozilla wants to hop on board the 'you get what we dictate you get' train, and now wants to make Thunderbird one of the dime a dozen chatterbox programs masquerading as an email client. Release 60, is a disaster, especially for Mac users. It was not so long ago, Mozilla announced they couldn't care less about Thunderbird and were going to just let it whither on the vine in 'volunteer/donator supported' land. Wish they had kept their word on that, in view of what they ended up doing.