Thunderbird as a Web App revisited

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at
Fri Dec 11 09:25:40 UTC 2015

Hi all. Kent pointed me to this group a few hours ago and I signed up. 
Here is a Thunderbird-related proposal for feedback, revision (it's 
CC-BY-SA licensed), or action that I wrote the other day and then edited 
a bit afterwards. It's about making a "Thunderbird Server" as a complex 
webapp hosted locally by Node.js and supporting plugins to extend it 
into a social semantic desktop. That proposal was written in response to 
the thread on Mozilla Governance about Mitchell Baker's 2015-11-30 email 
related to Thunderbird's future.

Some more details on the proposal and me (by way of introduction since 
it is my first post) are below. Thank you to everyone here for all you 
have done here to keep Thunderbird useable for so long and help chart 
out a course for the future.

--Paul Fernhout

== More details

Hopefully you can overlook the silly "ThunderbirdS Are Grow!" motto and 
other Thunderbirds references in the proposal like to International 
Rescue -- I was a big "Thunderbirds" fan as a kid, plus I also like 
gardening as a software development metaphor. :-)

I have used Thunderbird all the way back to near the beginning and it 
has served me well for over a million received messages and about 20K 
sent messages.

So, as I've done before for other lists, I copied all the mailman 
archives from tb-planning and then gunzipped them and cat-ted them 
together and put them into Thunderbird (no doubt there is a plugin to do 
that somewhere). I've been enjoying looking around at some of the past 
discussions here. When searching on whether a server had been discussed 
before, I found a discussion started September 17th by Kent James about 
"Future Planning: Thunderbird as a Web App". So this local Thunderbird 
web server idea is obviously not new.

In case it is of use, the proposal I wrote includes suggestions about 
how such a project will benefit Firefox itself. Some of those are in the 
form of quotes from other commentators in the governance thread like 
Niklas or even some names I'm starting to recognize in the tb-planning 
archives. :-) I generalized those further and added some more related 
ideas around the contrast of local data exchanged peer-to-peer versus 
central data accessed client-to-shared-server. I suggest peer-to-peer is 
the soul of the web and even what sustains it, and that is why 
Thunderbird is so important (including to Mozilla with its current 
"laser-focus" on Firefox).

That proposal could use a lot of help by someone familiar with the 
codebase in coming up with a more reliable estimate of what it would 
take to get a Thunderbird Server running to the point where it was 
useful to most people. So, it is really just a starting point.

In the proposal I suggest a much grander "social semantic desktop" 
vision for Thunderbird Server than just handling email (or even just 
being another Slack clone). That larger vision is what motivated me to 
spend the time writing that up.

The proposal has some more specifics as to technology choices I would 
use if doing such a project just on my own. I have recently finished a 
first version of a good-size single-page multi-user FOSS webapp called 
NarraFirma with about forty virtual screens, including graphs and quite 
a few scrolling tables. I started that webapp in JavaScript, Dojo, 
Dijit, GFX, and dgrid and (after a lot of evaluation of alternatives as 
complexity issue grew) the webapp ended up in Typescript, Mithril, D3, 
and with my own simpler grid. About 99% of the code is in the webapp, 
and about 1% is in the backend. The backend can be either Node.js or 
WordPress. Being tooled up, I'd enjoy working on a Thunderbird Server 
project that used similar technologies -- but for pay though, as we just 
blew all our spare cash/credit writing NarraFirma. :-)

Anyway, we can dream even if our dreams may not come true any time soon. 
I had applied this week on Wednesday to Mozilla as a Growth Engineer 
suggesting improving Thunderbird, and I got rejected Thursday, which 
seems like some new record in HR turnaround. :-) Although I've applied 
to Mozilla a couple of times before, including over four years ago for 
the Thunderbird team (also suggesting the social semantic desktop idea, 
and never hearing back that time that I recall). So, I'm probably in 
some list somewhere, maybe even for a good reason unrelated to liking 
Thunderbird a lot. :-)

Still, if just 5% of what Mozilla probably put into Firefox OS had gone 
into Thunderbird, wow, what software the world might have today for 
secure peer-to-peer data exchange of semantic information. :-)

I pointed this manifesto out to people on the Mithril mailing list, and 
one person mentioned the Roundcube team has recently raised about 
US$100,000 via Indiegogo to improve greatly. I added some comments at 
the end of the manifesto about that and why it would still be a good 
idea for Mozilla to be directly involved in a webmail/messaging/etc 
project of its own as a way to grow Firefox and web standards related to 
security and privacy and data exchange.

--Paul Fernhout
The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies 
of abundance in the hands of those still thinking in terms of scarcity.

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