Mozilla gets serious about e-mail

The organization that gave us competition in the browser market is going after e-mail--a Very Good Thing for the market.

This is very good news. We've long needed real competition in the e-mail market, given how much time people spend in e-mail. Now the organization that gave us competition in the browser market has decided to get serious about e-mail. This is a Very Good Thing.

Mozilla (on Monday) announced a new initiative to stimulate innovation in Internet mail and communications. Mozilla plans to develop Internet communications software based on the Thunderbird product, code and brand. The new initiative also aims to nurture a robust developer ecosystem in order to drive improvements through open source and community innovation, in the tradition of the Firefox web browser.

Why is this such a good thing? Let me count the ways...

Currently, the company that owns most of the world's mailboxes--Microsoft-- has done little to nothing to improve the e-mail experience. E-mail today is essentially the same as it was 10 years ago. This is almost criminal, given how much time we spend in it.

A good friend with access to Microsoft's Exchange team suggested a reason for this, which came from Microsoft: the Exchange code is so old and so crumbly that Microsoft doesn't dare to fiddle with it. Yes, it would make perfect sense to centralize collaboration and social networking in the address book/e-mail client, but Microsoft apparently can't do this without risking the stability of its omnipresent e-mail client and server.

And so the world suffers because of early design decisions.

Enter Mozilla. Mozilla has an excellent track record of taking Microsoft head-on, and winning (or, at least, competing vigorously). Firefox has, almost overnight, become the default browser for a huge swath of the market. I'm confident that Mozilla can, once again, check Microsoft's lethargic lumber with a solid core upon which a vibrant community can build the e-mail system that we need.

How the team will develop the system is still up in the air, as Mozilla Chief Executive Mitchell Baker writes:

Mozilla will provide an initial $3 million in seed funding to launch MailCo. This is expected to be spent mostly on building a small team of people who are passionate about e-mail and Internet communications. As MailCo develops it and the Mozilla Foundation will evaluate what's the best model for long-term sustainability. Mozilla may well invest additional funds; we also hope that there are other paths for sustainability.

This is a good way to approach the problem. I especially like the fact that David Ascher of ActiveState will be taking over the reins of the new organization. David is a credible, strong community figure who should be able to pull this off.

To be truly disruptive I believe that Mozilla (or, rather, MailCo) will need to focus on both the e-mail server and client. It would be truly incredible if Mozilla could collaborate with Yahoo! on this, fresh off its acquisition of Zimbra. A server that married Zimbra's flexibility and "soft client" (browser-based e-mail client), with Thunderbird's "fat client" (for those of us who don't like web-based e-mail) would be a clear winner. I don't think it will happen, but it would be impressive...

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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