ExQuilla as a Model for “Thunderbird Professional” aka SwanFox

By | September 21, 2013

About a year ago, when we on the Thunderbird team were having very active discussions about the future of Thunderbird after Mozilla’s drastic cutback in funding, Axel Grude and myself were minority voices promoting the importance of developing funding sources for Thunderbird if it were to prosper in the future. In contrast, the majority viewpoint, as I understand it, was some combination of 1) We don’t need funding, Thunderbird is fine the way it is, and eager volunteers will move things forward, and 2) Mozilla Messaging tried for years to develop funding and failed, so it is probably impossible to do so.

At the time I floated a proposal, with the code name SwanFox, to put together a commercial entity to develop and package what might be called “Thunderbird Professional” that would combine new features and better support, but would require some sort of payment from users. That entity would have had some sort of preferential relationship with Mozilla that would involve promotion within the community version of Thunderbird and licensing of the Thunderbird trademark, along with the SwanFox team offering resources back to Thunderbird to continue the development of the community version. Ultimately though I concluded that there was inadequate support from the powers-that-be for such an entity, such that any benefits of a formal relationship with Mozilla would come with so many restrictions that it would not be worthwhile, so I dropped public discussions of the concept.

But that does not mean that my opinions have changed, nor that I have been inactive in that period. In fact, the next few months will be crucial as a testing ground for some of the concepts behind the SwanFox proposal, because I am in the process of transitioning my very large ExQuilla addon (which provides email and contacts support for Exchange Web Services) into a pay model. The success or failure of that process will  provide very significant data about the viability of a pay model for something like SwanFox (possibly with ExQuilla forming the foundation).

There are cultural, technical, and financial issues at stake here.

First, the cultural issues. Mozilla tries to maintain a delicate balance between the commercial and open-source worlds, but clearly the public persona leans toward the open source world. There is a natural base of strong opposition to commercialization of any Mozilla-related product. A good example of that are some of the reactions I have received to the steps I have taken towards commercialization. A few months ago, users of ExQuilla were given a prompt that says “We are transitioning to a pay model soon, but if you want a free six month license click here”. That announcement alone was enough to trigger a slew of what I lovingly call the “I hate you” one-star reviews, with comments like “If I have to pay then I’ll just buy Outlook”, “This crosses the line into scam and I am reporting it to mozilla”, “it pops up a message asking for payment. Complete bullshit”. Meanwhile the discussions with users that I have on my support site are quite encouraging. After all, email is job-critical to most people, and $10 a year is really not very much money to maintain job productivity. What I expect here is to continue to see an aggressive backlash within a minority of the Mozilla community, but overall positive support from the actual users. I expect this backlash to get even worse when in a few months the addon will stop working for non-paying users.

Second, the technical issues. One thing that ExQuilla is proving is that you really can do a massive rewrite of portions of Thunderbird through a binary addon. The core changes required to get Thunderbird to accept a new email protocol have been surprisingly few, while the hacks required within ExQuilla have been enormous. As a result, I am convinced that the way forward for a SwanFox product would be as a massive addon to the core Thunderbird code. That avoids the forking alternative that Postbox took, which left them frozen outside of newer Thunderbird features and security updates.

But the addon approach has its own problems, mostly Mozilla culture related. The Mozilla addon review process is painfully slow (ExQuilla compatible with Thunderbird 24 has been waiting for a month for a review, such that current users have a crisis when Thunderbird updates). This is really not workable for a mission-critical addon. There are also stubborn biases against being too commercially-friendly in Mozilla, such as the issue of dealing with reviews of proprietary code. Although Mozilla has a process to review proprietary code, they are not willing to sign non-disclosure agreements, which creates a major unacceptable legal risk to any serious commercial venture.  It’s pretty clear to me that SwanFox would need to do private-label builds of Thunderbird for the sole purpose of maintaining an independent update channel that they control, rather than relying on Mozilla channels with their commercially-unfriendly features. This is also the approach that ExQuilla takes, maintaining a separate update channel for users independently of Mozilla as well as allowing downloads and updates from the Mozilla addons site.

Finally, the financial issues. ExQuilla is being offered on an annual subscription basis for $10 per year. As users transition to a pay model over the next six months, it’s a big question mark what fraction of current users will convert, and how much resistance future users will have. But preliminary indications are quite positive. In any case, even the most pessimistic estimations of the annual income that ExQuilla will provide, with its tiny user base, are significantly more than the $10,000 per year income that Mozilla earns from Thunderbird. (I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get Mozilla to publicly report their Thunderbird income, but all I have received has been this private estimate). But currently I am quite optimistic that this financial basis will provide a solid future for ExQuilla. If that same $10 per year model were extended to the 20,000,000 estimated users of Thunderbird, even a modest 1% conversion to a SwanFox/Thunderbird Professional would generate $2,000,000 per year, which would be sufficient to ensure a robust future for the Thunderbird project.

Contrast the ExQuilla plans to that to a sister addon, the GPL-licensed Exchange Provider for Calendar. There was an original version released by Simon Schubert, but that effort was mostly abandoned and replaced by a different version by Michel Verbraak. Recently Michel announced that he too is abandoning development. It is not reasonable to expect a major business-focused feature to be supported indefinitely by a volunteer. Businesses understand this and are willing to pay, but things like the GPL and Mozilla culture sometimes stand in the way.

So I hope that users and developers who care about Thunderbird are cheering for the financial success of ExQuilla, even if you do not use Microsoft Exchange Server, as ExQuilla may end up being the precursor of a Thunderbird Professional that could finally take business users seriously, while providing the financial basis for a robust future for Thunderbird.