How Can We Save Thunderbird Now Email is Dying?

I like Thunderbird. I've been using it for years, albeit now more as a backup for my Gmail account than as my primary email client. But it's always been the Cinderella of the Mozilla family, rather neglected compared to its more glamorous sister Firefox.

The creation of the Mozilla Messaging subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation means that efforts are already underway to remedy that. But there's a deeper problem that Thunderbird needs to face, too.

In terms of fixing the short-term problem of increasing Thunderbird's user base, there are number of actions that can be taken. Perhaps the easiest is starting to encourage and promote Thunderbird add-ons. The equivalents for Firefox have turned into one of the most powerful arguments for using it – and for not being seduced by shiny new browser toys like Chromium/Chrome.

I often hear people say that they couldn't live without a particular browser add-on, but I've never heard the equivalent for Thunderbird. That needs to change if Mozilla's email solution is to become as central – and loved – as its browser.

Related to this is that much more must be done with the SpreadThunderbird site, which is effectively moribund. One of the biggest factors that led to Firefox's success was the use of the community of enthusiastic users to drive further uptake, notably through the SpreadFirefox site.

This simply isn't happening with Thunderbird, so it's no wonder that adoption rates are an order of magnitude lower. If open source has taught us anything, it is that the user community is immensely creative and capable of acting as a multiplying factor.

These are relatively simple things to try. But the larger problem facing Thunderbird is more profound, and not so easy to solve. Email is dying. Time and again I come across comments to the effect that people have given up on their email inbox, and simply junked their messages.

Increasingly, people are turning to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as their messaging medium. It's not hard to see why. These are opt-in services: you get to choose who can contact you, unlike email.

This has led to the scourge of spam, which now represents 94% of all email, according to Google's Postini subsidiary. A classic Tragedy of the Commons has resulted, whereby a few selfish individuals exploit and ultimately destroy a resource used by all.

Sadly, it looks like the battle against spam is lost; even though services like Gmail offer extremely efficient filtering in my experience, it's a poor substitute for a messaging service that can assume that you want to see everything that is sent to you, because only people of interest are allowed to contact you.

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