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Thunderbird returns to nest as Mozilla Messaging rejoins Mozilla.

Mozilla decided to spin off Thunderbird in 2007 to form an independent organization that came to be known as Mozilla Messaging. In an unexpected reversal, Mozilla announced on Monday that it will reabsorb Mozilla Messaging and integrate it into Mozilla Labs, a team within Mozilla that incubates experimental projects.

The move to bring Mozilla Messaging back into Mozilla proper was motivated by a desire to work more closely on communication technologies. Mozilla wants to offer some contact management and social networking capabilities in future versions of Firefox—an agenda that suggests an obvious opportunity for collaboration with Mozilla Messaging.

David Ascher, who currently runs Mozilla Messaging, will still serve as the head of Mozilla's messaging development efforts after the reorganization. He will head a Mozilla Labs team that focuses on online communications and social innovations within Mozilla Labs. He will also manage the Thunderbird team which will continue actively developing the open source mail client as part of Mozilla.

In Mozilla's early days, the organization's original software suite was a multifaceted collection of Internet applications that included a Web browser and messaging software. Modern-day Mozilla is much more narrowly focused on the Web and encourages a culture where standards-based Web applications are championed as the future, eventually displacing native desktop software.

The 2007 decision to spin off Mozilla Messaging as a separate organization made a lot of sense at the time. It seemed like a really good way to ensure that Thunderbird would be able to grow on its own without the risk that it would be marginalized by Mozilla's increasingly ambivalent attitude towards conventional desktop software.

I was optimistic that Mozilla Messaging would be able to secure its own sources of revenue and attract new developers, but it sadly hasn't achieved that level of independence. Despite leaving the nest, Mozilla Messaging was never really able to fly on its own.

Thunderbird 3.0 was an exceptional breakthrough release, but subsequent progress has been limited. There is a lot of really excellent architectural work being done under the hood, a lot of good effort at platform integration improvements, and some interesting experiments that are being conducted behind the scenes. Despite these advances, there is not a whole lot to show for the past two years in terms of new user-facing features in the mail client.

A lot of the great ideas introduced in Thunderbird 3.0 haven't been able to reach their full potential because there hasn't been enough subsequent iteration to move them forward. Highly desirable improvements like the GMail-style conversation view are stuck in beta-quality add-on limbo because there isn't enough momentum to get them polished, integrated, and delivered to users.

Ascher and his development team are very creative and talented, but Mozilla Messaging unfortunately doesn't seem to have enough resources to execute on on its great ideas. Although merging Mozilla Messaging back into Mozilla could help in that respect, it's not really clear yet what the implications are going to be.

Some innovative Mozilla Messaging projects like Raindrop have languished this year because the developers are focusing on F1, a social sharing add-on for Firefox. I think we can expect to see more of the same after Mozilla Messaging is reintegrated into Mozilla—a focus on advancing Firefox as a tool for consuming Web-based messaging services.

So where does that leave Thunderbird development? In a blog entry posted yesterday, Mozilla's Mitchell Baker discussed how the lizard plans to bring the bird back into its nest.

"The Thunderbird team will continue to develop and release Thunderbird from its new home within the combined organization. David Ascher will continue to oversee our Thunderbird product. Thunderbird users and contributors should see no difference in their experience. E-mail is a solid and foundational technology which retains immense value," she wrote. "We intend to continue our work with the Thunderbird email product to meet this need. The innovations occurring today in online communications and social interaction are astonishing. It's a wildly vibrant time."

Baker also highlighted some of the work that the Thunderbird team at Mozilla Messaging has done to modernize the browser's underlying infrastructure—an effort that will hopefully make it easier to deliver some of the new features that will be needed to keep Thunderbird relevant.

Like any organization with limited resources, Mozilla has a lot to juggle and won't be able to please everyone. Thunderbird doesn't really fit into Mozilla's broader mission anymore and has lost some appeal due to the strong preference for Web-based mail clients exhibited by many users. It seems unlikely that bringing Mozilla Messaging back into Mozilla is going to be an improvement for Thunderbird, but it probably won't hurt it either.

News source here @ arstechnica.

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