Lessons from Google: Thunderbird as a Firefox extension!

By | June 1, 2010

During my current trek to the Bay Area, I seem to be bombarded with news about Google. I was particularly interested in the different way that Google views its business model, and that got me thinking about how Thunderbird fits into Mozilla’s business model.

Google logo

In an extensive article in Atlantic magazine (I always read the Atlantic while travelling), James Fallow describes efforts that Google is undertaking to try to revive the viability of news reporting as a professional activity. A lot of this revolves around different methods of bundling content with monetization schemes. In the traditional newspaper model, news is one of many parts of the bundle, with monetization provided by various advertising streams. The internet has provided many ways to unbundle the various pieces of the newspaper, with the result that the hard news content no longer has a sufficient bundling with the monetization schemes.

Google may be viewed as a new kind of bundle, with its many services (search, maps, email, news, etc.) all part of the bundle of services that are attached to the monetization scheme of search advertising. The Atlantic article notes that:

Virtually all of Google’s (enormous) revenue comes from a tiny handful of its activities: mainly the searches people conduct when they’re looking for something to buy. That money subsidizes all the other services the company offers …

That requires a new way of thinking about understanding the relationship of traditional “cost centers” to “revenue”. When Google’s Andy Rubin was asked to justify the expense of Android development in this interview in the San Jose Mercury News, he responded:

So all we have to focus on are those types of innovations that scale for large audiences, and … the revenue crank just turns.

So what is Mozilla’s bundle and monetization scheme, and how does Thunderbird contribute to that bundle?

Firefox logoMozilla’s main bundle that is attached to a monetization scheme is the FireFox browser, which is monetized through people’s use of a particular search provider when connected through the bundle. Thunderbird (and its related Mozilla Messaging cost center) do not currently contribute anything directly to that bundle and its monetization scheme.

I don’t believe that Mozilla’s subsidization of Thunderbird can continue indefinitely. Perhaps that was possible for awhile, but Mozilla’s bundle can be expected to come under continual competitive attack, which will eventually force them to marshall the resources needed to defend the bundle. Mozilla Messaging and Thunderbird need to be part of the solution, and not just a cost drag, when the tough decisions are being made to defend the bundle.

If we think like Google, it’s pretty obvious what the step is that is needed for Thunderbird to become a major contributor to Mozilla’s main business of “Firefox the bundle”.  We need to figure out ways to attract people to the bundle, and get them to linger as long as possible on the bundle while the “revenue crank just turns.” The obvious solution is that the underlying communications code that drives Thunderbird needs to be repackaged as a FireFox extension. (Since I call that codebase Skink, let’s temporarily use the code name SkinkFox to describe the Thunderbird-as-Firefox-extension product.)  SkinkFox could have the same relationship to Thunderbird that Lightning has to Sunbird: the same product packaged both standalone, and as an extension.

“That’s just SeaMonkey!” you say. Well no it is not. If you think like an engineer and focus on features, then I guess SkinkFox is similar to SeaMonkey. But thinking like a marketer, the goal of this is to build the FireFox brandname and revenue stream, and SeaMonkey does not contribute to that while SkinkFox does.

Technically, great efforts are already being made to reduce the barriers that keep the mailnews (Skink) codebase separate from FireFox. I don’t think it would be a huge leap to figure out how to merge Thunderbird’s user interface and tab system into FireFox’s.

As Thunderbird enters a critical rethinking in the next few months in the aftermath of Thunderbird 3.0/3.1, SkinkFox is one of a variety of thoughts I will be giving on possible futures for messaging at Mozilla.