Thunderbird market segments

David Ascher dascher at
Mon Apr 26 18:05:48 UTC 2010

Kent, great questions.

My analysis on this market segmentation question is fairly coarse, but 
maybe useful. This is mostly derived from anecdotal information rather 
than great data, because solid analytics are really hard to come by.

I believe the two largest segments for current users of Thunderbird are:

1) "Institutional" or "enterprise" deployments, such as universities and 
governments, who deploy Thunderbird primarily because it's open source, 
and gives them a traditional email client (rather than webmail) which 
does not tie them to a proprietary vendor. It's hard to tell how many 
large businesses use Thunderbird -- I suspect most of our corporate 
users are outside of North America, due to the different relationships 
with Microsoft in different geographies. (Note that for most 
universities I know about, desktop clients are primarily allocated to 
faculty & staff, and students, more mobile, use webmail).

2) SOHO/SMB-type users for whom Thunderbird is the preferred choice 
because of a combination of: a) history (many Thunderbird users picked 
Netscape years ago), b) customization options, including add-ons, myriad 
preferences, c) an affinity with Mozilla and the values of openness, 
user control, etc.

There are other groups in my mind (and I realize my breakdown of the 
market is similar but slightly different than yours), but the above two, 
I believe, account for most of our users. This is a very gross 
generalization, and indeed many educational users also like the Mozilla 
mission, and there are people using it as a "home email client" as a 
complement to their Outlook usage at work, etc.

Still, the dichotomy above is I think quite interesting, and portentous 
(which is a word I wouldn't normally use except how often does one get a 
chance?). In particular, I see the above two segments wanting different 
things out of an evolving product.

Institutional admins have a job that I remember well (I used to be the 
mail admin for, dealing with about 6k users). In many ways, 
success comes from establishing enough control so that users don't cause 
too much havoc, because there's always way more users than there are 
hours to help them. In particular, those deployments of desktop software 
need things like remote management, more or less locked-down setups, 
centralized configuration, multi-year roadmaps, SLAs, second-tier 
support arrangements, interoperability with systems like Exchange, 
blackberries, etc. The systems they want Thunderbird to integrate with 
tend to be internal systems like inside-the-firewall calendar servers, 
LDAP servers, CRMs, Exchange servers, etc. (Educational institutions in 
some ways have it even worse than corporate deployments, because their 
user populations resent central control, and their budgets are often 
tight). These deployments tend to prefer slower product evolution.

SOHO/SMB users tend to be more like "consumers". They get software 
straight from the "vendor" (or from their Linux distro), do security 
updates as prompted, relish the ability to be "in charge" of their 
software life. They tend to want to integrate with the internet rather 
than the intranet, and many are exploring varieties of communication 
systems from Facebook to Twitter to Skype, etc. They tend to live more 
and more on the web, and expect more and more all of their software to 
integrate with the web. These users range in their attitude towards 
change and risk, ranging from early adopters to more conservative users 
(most of us actually have different attitudes towards different things 
-- e.g. I like my cars and clothes old, my web toys shiny and new).

A couple of additional meta-points:

  - Both market segments periodically evaluate their use of desktop 
software in a world where the web is becoming more potent daily, but 
where their feeling of control over the software they use on the web is 
being challenged as well. I think we need to build tomorrow's software 
with as full an understanding of these factors as possible. I can talk 
forever about that, but it's a bit off-topic.

  - Mozilla's culture, at least since the inception of Firefox, and as 
described by the Mozilla Manifesto, is user-centric, not 
business-centric. When having to choose between something that is better 
for people or something that is better for organizations, we routinely 
choose the former. I'm proud of that and I don't see that changing.

  - I believe it is easier to get unpaid contributors to projects that 
are aimed at individual users; I believe it is easier to build 
businesses making software for businesses. All other things being equal, 
of course (_Ceteris paribus_ as philosophy teachers say).

  - Mozilla's greatest successes to date center on making the web 
accessible, fun, useful. I don't think that's an accident. I think the 
web was built to be open, and as a result, a small group of people can 
have a large impact with it. I don't know anyone who'se been able to 
have similar scale impact in the world of traditional messaging stacks, 
for a variety of reasons.

My thinking about where we should go from here is evolving, but my 
current thoughts are:

  - Mozilla Messaging will be exploring possible new features for 
Thunderbird primarily through add-ons, so that we can iterate fast, and 
take risks which we can't take with trunk. As an example of the kinds of 
things I'm thinking about, see Shane Caraveo's blog: -- he's been getting familiar with the 
codebase, and spinning up a few experiments. Aspects that I'd like us to 
explore include making Thunderbird more competitive for the 
"SOHO/SMB/consumer" market, including integration with web-based 
services, including Weave for sync, etc.

  - We'll also keep working on the "platform" aspect of our codebase, so 
that both we and others can experiment more easily. That includes things 
like keeping up with the work that the Jetpack team is working on, and 
likely building more bits of componentry into the platform.

  - I don't think it would serve our mission to set up Mozilla Messaging 
as an enterprise-focused business, and I don't think we have the DNA for 
it. However, maybe others can fill in the gap. To explore that, we've 
been thinking about setting up an email list where admins of large 
Thunderbird deployments can drill into the issues which get in their 
way, and, I'm hoping, find companies, add-on authors, and contributors 
who can help them. The conversation about autoconfig in universities was 
interesting, but I think we can have maybe less virulent versions of 
those discussions in a better defined forum, and where I can point 
people who might be able to help.

  - As an aside, I'm really interested in your work on EWS. I think 
there are lots of opportunities there, especially for someone who's 
interested in building a business around it. I also think it's 
potentially a very large project, and has definite technical risk, which 
is why I like the fact that you're poking at it to understand those 
areas of risk.


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