This is an advent calendar for techies. In the fully commercialized digital world, almost everything belongs to a large Internet corporation. Their software is neither open nor free. As an alternative, there is this small island of the open source world: software whose code is publicly visible and can be independently checked for possible security gaps and backdoors. Software that can be freely used, distributed and improved. Often the drive for work is simply the joy of providing something useful to society.
Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing. Some projects are backed by an individual, others by a loosely organized community, a tightly managed foundation with full-time employees or a consortium. The work is done entirely on a voluntary basis, or it is financed through donations, cooperation with Internet companies, government funding or an open source business model. Regardless of whether it is a single application or a complex ecosystem, whether a PC program, app or operating system – the diversity of open source is overwhelming.
Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing.
December 14th: The Thunderbird e-mail program
If you don’t want to spend money on Microsoft’s Outlook program, you can use Thunderbird as an alternative. The mail program belongs to the Mozilla family. However, family relationships were tense for a long time.
Thunderbird is an email program for PC. In November 2021 have estimated eight million people used Thunderbird daily. Above all in Germany the project is strong: 22 percent of the installations come from here. The software is under a Mozilla Public License 2.0. There are no smartphone apps. According to Thunderbird, they are often asked about and discussed. As of now, there are no concrete plans or decisions.
Mails dragged onto the computer
A Thunderbird account is quick to set up: You simply enter the respective email address and password. With most mail providers you have to activate the automated access beforehand. At Gmx.de and many other providers can do this with one click in the settings, with Telekom addresses you have to a separate password invest. If an account or several accounts are set up, Thunderbird retrieves new mails and saves them locally on the computer as soon as the program is started and online. From now on, you can also write and send messages comfortably from your own computer.
In standard mode, Thunderbird only copies the messages to the computer while they remain with the e-mail provider (IMAP mode). Alternatively, you can set that the messages are deleted online after the download, immediately or after any number of days (POP3 mode). A Thunderbird sideline is a built-in calendar. With the help of several hundreds Add-ons additional functions can be added. The most popular is an extension for synchronization with the Google Calendar. Also among the favorites is an add-on for the better Organize folders and Timing messages. If you are not satisfied with the simple gray-white-blue look of the program, you can use the program about 100 themes adjust.
For many years it took an add-on called Enigmail to encrypt emails. However, since August 2020, OpenPGP-based end-to-end encryption has been built in as a core function. That can set up in less than ten clicks. Thunderbird creates two small text files: a public key that others can use to send you encrypted e-mails, and a corresponding private key that makes them readable again.
Thunderbird shares a large part its source codes and its history with the Firefox browser. It all began in the mid-1990s when Netscape Communications lost out in the “browser war” with Microsoft. As a result of the defeat, the software was released and the Mozilla Foundation was founded in 2003. This made two individual applications out of the original Netscape Communicator program package: the Firefox browser, version 1.0 of which appeared in November 2004, and the Thunderbird e-mail client, which followed a month later.
Drama in the Mozilla house
Since then, both programs have been part of the Mozilla family. In that, however, a family drama soon began: The foundation wanted to get rid of Thunderbird and in 2007 considered what a future outside of Mozilla could look like. Five years later, the foundation cut support and announced that there would only be security updates and no new features. At the end of 2015, Mozilla boss Mitchell Baker became very clear and demanded in a post unequivocally to finally outsource the program. The two family members would hinder each other. An overwhelming majority in Mozilla management would rather focus on the Firefox browser, which could have an industry-wide impact. And “with all due respect”: Thunderbird has no such potential.
Mozilla gab an expert opinion commissioned, which suggested three different scenarios: Thunderbird will find accommodation with the German Document Foundation, the organization behind LibreOffice, with the Software Freedom Conservancy in the USA or becomes an autonomous subsidiary of Mozilla. In mid-2017 it was clear that the drama would come to an end. Thunderbird was allowed to stay, but the Mozilla Foundation would only be a “legal and fiscal home”, while Thunderbird takes care of the rest of the development itself.
Die MZLA Technologies Corporation
Created as the legal entity for Thunderbird in October 2019 MZLA Technologies Corporation as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mozilla, based in California. The managing director was Mark Surman, who is also the managing director of the Mozilla Foundation. As start-up capital, MZLA Technologies Corporation received how from the Mozilla annual report for 2019, an injection of approximately $ 1.6 million and $ 120,000 in support for ongoing expenses. Thunderbird has managed and financed itself ever since. The highest body is the council (Thunderbird Council)chosen by the community. Participate in the election can help those who have worked at Thunderbird for at least ten hours a year in the past, be it in the form of code contributions, translations or support. In the last election in September 2021, the electorate consisted of 134 people. The chairman of the council is Philipp Kewisch from Hamburg, who works full-time at Mozilla in the Firefox add-on team.
The council is in charge of Thunderbird, Kewisch told heise online: “The council is currently the highest decision-making body in the project and takes on a large number of tasks. The board of the MZLA Technologies Corporation, on the other hand, has legal decision-making power and responsibility, but works hand in hand together with the council to implement the decisions made there within the legally permissible framework. “
Thunderbird stands on its own two feet
In the spring of 2021, Thunderbird treasurer Ryan Sipes has the Annual report for 2020 submitted. While the Firefox project is financed through a search deal with Google and lives on a large scale, Thunderbird has so far been financed almost exclusively – and on a much more modest level – through donations. It raised $ 2.3 million in 2020, the result of a steady increase since 2017 when it was about $ 700,000.
In 2021 the revenue was down slightly above 2020. In 2020, Mozilla had 15 employees. According to Kewisch, there are now just under 20. Thunderbird currently has Four Digits advertised and one filled with many projects Roadmap. The extensive autonomy of the little brother of Firefox, who is not always loved, in the circle of the large Mozilla family works.
The work on the series of articles is based in part on a “Neustart Kultur” grant from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, awarded by VG Wort.