Mozilla's *Really* Important News: Thunderbird Lives

As you may have noticed, the Mobile World Congress is taking place in Barcelona. Although I generally try to ignore what happens at this depressing orgy of high-tech digital consumerism, Mozilla has made some interesting announcements there. As Mozilla's President Li Gong summarised:

Two years ago Firefox OS was a promise. At MWC 2014, we were able to show that Firefox OS scales across price ranges and form factors. Today, at MWC 2015, we celebrate dozens of successful device launches across continents, adoption of Firefox OS beyond mobile, as well as growing interest and innovation around the only truly open mobile platform. Also, we are proud to report that three major chip vendors contribute to the Firefox OS ecosystem.

In terms of Firefox phones, Orange announced that it would be bringing phones running Firefox OS to 13 markets in Africa and the Middle East. The new Klif phone from Alcatel has prices starting from $35:

The Orange Klif offers connectivity speeds of up to 21 Mbps, is dual SIM, and includes a two-megapixel camera and micro-SD slot. The addition of the highly optimised Firefox OS meanwhile allows for truly seamless Web browsing experiences, creating a powerful Internet-ready package.

The Orange Klif is the first Firefox OS phone powered by a MediaTek processor.

Mozilla also announced that a new range of Firefox OS phones is coming:

Mozilla, KDDI, LG U+, Telefonica and Verizon Wireless collaborate to create a new category of intuitive and easy to use Firefox OS phones: The companies are collaborating to contribute to the Mozilla community and create a new range of Firefox OS phones for a 2016 launch in various form factors – flips, sliders and slates – that balance the simplicity of a basic phone (calls, texts) with the more advanced features of a smartphone such as fun applications, content, navigation, music players, camera, video, LTE, VoLTE, email and Web browsing.

Interestingly, it seems that some of those phones will be sold in the US, marking an important new stage in the Firefox OS stategy. However, Mozilla also made an earlier announcement - not at MWC - that I think is much more important for various reasons:

We’re happy to report that Thunderbird usage continues to expand.

Mozilla measures program usage by Active Daily Installations (ADI), which is the number of pings that Mozilla servers receive as installations do their daily plugin block-list update. This is not the same as the number of active users, since some users don’t access their program each day, and some installations are behind firewalls.

That in itself is interesting enough, but what's even better is this:

The Thunderbird team is now working hard preparing our next major release, which will be Thunderbird 38 in May 2015. We’ll be blogging more about that release in the next few weeks, including reporting on the many new features that we have added.

Why am I so excited by this rather routine-seeming announcement? Because it confirms that Mozilla is now actively developing its standalone email client Thunderbird - something that it formally stopped doing in July 2012:

Much of Mozilla’s leadership — including that of the Thunderbird team — has come to the conclusion that on-going stability is the most important thing, and that continued innovation in Thunderbird is not a priority for Mozilla’s product efforts. (For more information about the path to this conclusion, see the “Background Information” section below.) As a result, the Thunderbird team has developed a plan that provides both stability for Thunderbird’s current state and allows the Thunderbird community to innovate if it chooses.

So why does that matter? After all, there are lots of ways of accessing email, so why should we care whether Thunderbird has been semi-abandoned or not? As I wrote at the end of 2013, the world has changed dramatically in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks about massive surveillance of our online activities. That makes using encryption crucial, and that, in its turn, gives Thunderbird a renewed importance, because it is currently one of the most popular ways for using GNU Privacy Guard, the free software version of the core PGP technology, via Enigmail. Indeed, it's fascinating to see from the Thunderbird blog post on "Active Daily Installations" that privacy-loving Germany headed the list with 1.7 million out of a total of 9.3 million (UK could only manage a rather feeble 254,000.)

As I reported a month ago, GPG has been through a really rocky patch. It has also been the subject of harsh, and I think rather ungrateful, criticism:

I realized that when I receive a GPG encrypted email, it simply means that the email was written by someone who would voluntarily use GPG. I don’t mean someone who cares about privacy, because I think we all care about privacy. There just seems to be something particular about people who try GPG and conclude that it’s a realistic path to introducing private communication in their lives for casual correspondence with strangers.

Increasingly, it’s a club that I don’t want to belong to anymore.

Of course, I applaud moves to come up with better solutions than GPG - and the person who wrote that blog post quoted above is working to do that with Open Whisper Systems, so at least he is consistent. But I'm still proud to say that I *do* belong to the club that believes GPG has an important role to play in allowing us to communicate privately in the post-Snowden era. And that's why Mozilla's announcement that it is picking up development of Thunderbird again is so important. There's even a hint that the Thunderbird team might make encryption an integral part of the project:

In Thunderbird 38 we are shipping [the open-source calendar add-on] Lightning by default with Thunderbird, with an opt-out dialog on first install. So we have at least started down the path of better support for key features that are in addons, while leaving them as addons to reduce complexity for the casual user. Enigmail would certainly be one of the next candidates we would consider. Unfortunately Enigmail is more of a one-person effort, while Lightning has always been a team effort. Enigmail by default implies a commitment by the core team to support it, and I don’t think that the core developer understanding of Enigmail is deep enough that we could make that commitment at this point in time.

That's a pity, but as Thunderbird's recent resurrection shows, we can always hope.

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