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.

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