Mozilla's e-mail group looks toward the cloud

Mozilla Messaging, while about to release the Thunderbird 3 desktop e-mail software, also is turning its attention to cloud computing with its Raindrop project.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--For almost all of its existence, Mozilla Messaging has been known for Thunderbird--e-mail software with the traditional view that a person's PC is the center of their computing existence.

Now, though, the Mozilla Foundation subsidiary's scope is expanding beyond the confines of the computer under your desk or on your lap. In the near term, the new Thunderbird 3 is becoming more integrated with the Web. And in the longer term, the Raindrop project has the potential to lift your inbox all the way to the cloud.

"For us it's really important to have Thunderbird. It's also important to not stay in the blinders of that scenario," Mozilla Messaging CEO David Ascher said in an interview at the company's headquarters here. With Raindrop, "We're focusing on best experience for messaging in a Web application."

Mozilla Messaging CEO David Ascher
Mozilla Messaging CEO David Ascher Stephen Shankland/CNET

The change reflects the changing nature of computing. Where Thunderbird's chief competition once was now software such as Microsoft's Outlook, it's now also got to reckon with Google's Web-based Gmail service and its ilk, Ascher said.

Thunderbird is still a priority. Thunderbird 3 is set to arrive next week in near-final form--though nearly a year later than had been planned--but Mozilla Messaging has high hopes the new version will be faster, easier to use, and more versatile through the addition of third-party extensions.

Universal inbox
Raindrop is something of an ultimate inbox in the company's vision, a Web application that draws not just from e-mail but from other communication conduits such as Twitter, Facebook mail, and instant messaging. Its goal isn't just to consolidate today's overabundance of communications channels, it's to help prioritize what's important and put off what's optional until a more convenient time.

"We're breaking the notion of one list coming in, in chronological order," he said. What just arrived isn't necessarily the most important thing to do, though human minds are prone to thinking it is.

Some aspects of Raindrop's future are more certain than others. It's way to early to say when the company might release its first version of the actual software, but one thing that's settled is that Raindrop won't be a service Mozilla offers. Instead, the software will run on others' servers--at Internet service providers, for example.

"Hosting a messaging system for the world is not something we can afford right now," Ascher said. Still, it's revealing that the company chose to create Raindrop as a server-based technology accessible through a Web browser rather than as PC-based software.

Will Raindrop rule the roost?
In the longer term--say 2015--might Raindrop replace Thunderbird as people's messaging interface of choice? Perhaps.

"I suspect some people will and some people won't," he said. "I think desktop software still has a bunch of user benefits that will last for quite awhile."

Persuading everybody to freely cooperate with Raindrop could be tough. Sites like Facebook like their central positions in people's electronic lives and like to serve ads next to their content. In time, though, Ascher believes they'll come aboard.

"I think in the long term, openness wins," he said.

Even without Raindrop, Thunderbird 3 will integrate with the Web. It's got Firefox's engine built in for displaying Web pages, a fact that means the software can display Web content.

That ability means Thunderbird can, for example, show Yahoo and Google calendars in separate tabs. There's little in the way of integration with those services today, but it can be added, Ascher said. He expects plenty more add-ons will bring it closer to the cloud, too. He didn't mention it, but even Raindrop could be added in its own compartment.

Mozilla Messaging smells money
Mozilla Messaging is part of a peculiar organizational structure. In the beginning the non-profit Mozilla Foundation oversaw the open-source software that was the core of Netscape Communicator. Eventually, that software split into two main components: the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird e-mail software.

The foundation set up two subsidiaries to oversee the two projects, first Mozilla Corp. for Firefox in 2005 and second Mozilla Messaging for Thunderbird in 2007. Ascher has since 2007 led the latter, which employs six engineers and nine others.

It also draws on the expertise of many volunteers in the open-source world who translate the software, write add-ons, and help debug it. Because of this help, Mozilla Messaging gets by with only one quality assurance employee and one marketing employee, and Thunderbird 3 will arrive in more than 40 languages.

The subsidiary today gets its funding from its nonprofit Mozilla Foundation parent, which in turn receives the lion's share of revenue from search advertising revenue that results from searches Firefox sends Google's way. Ultimately, Ascher wants Mozilla Messaging to be financially self-sustaining. But how?

"I'm not sure yet. I think what we're looking for are rev models like Firefox--revenue models where the user benefits and doesn't have to pay anything, and somehow enough money flows into Mozilla Messaging to fund development long-term," Ascher said.

That may sound like a lot of hand-waving, but Ascher points out he has no investors looking for a big and quick return on the money they invested, so Mozilla Messaging is a relatively cheap operation to run.

Ads? No thanks
One route the company won't take is advertising, the approach that's vital to Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail, as well as to Firefox.

"I don't think people benefit from advertising in mail," he said. "One reason it works for search engines is people often are searching to buy. They're happy to see ads. It helps them. I don't think that works in e-mail."

Today, there are probably somewhere between 10 million and 20 million Thunderbird users, said Rafael Ebron, Mozilla Messaging's director of marketing. That's a far cry from Firefox, whose users total more than 300 million, Mozilla says.

But both projects can punch above their weight. Just being a freely available alternative--whether with Thunderbird or with Raindrop--can steer other products and services, Ascher believes.

"Firefox had an influence over people greater than its market share," Ascher said. "I don't think we'd need to manage everybody's e-mail servers for us to have an influence over the e-mail landscape and make sure everybody has a better experience."