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After Mozilla gave birth to Firefox, the popular web browser, it created an email client in Thunderbird.
But as the two grew up, Thunderbird turned out to be a problem child. Concerned about its effect on the family, Mozilla started to push Thunderbird out of the nest.
Five years have passed, and Thunderbird is still hanging around. For now, Mozilla is keeping the email client under its wing but with conditions and not for long. The Mozilla drama is a study in the challenges of freeware.
The free, open source email platform was released in 2004, and was welcomed with 1 million downloads in the first 10 days. Mozilla stopped supporting Thunderbird in 2012, however, but it still has 25 million users.
Mozilla said it is keeping the email platform in its "legal, fiscal and cultural home," but reserves the right to sever the cord with six months' notice if Thunderbird does not make "meaningful progress in short order" to operate independently.
"From an operational perspective, Thunderbird needs to act independently," Philipp Kewisch wrote on the Mozilla Thunderbird Blog.
Because Thunderbird and Firefox are free, Mozilla had to support Thunderbird through fund-raising this past year. The company raised enough to hire some staff, but Thunderbird will need more resources going forward.
Kewisch said the long-term plan is to migrate Thunderbird's code to web technologies, but it will take time, staff, and planning. He said they are looking for highly skilled volunteer developers to help.
While Mozilla announced its intent to keep Thunderbird "home," it has intended to spin off the service for years. That has been the plan since at least 2015, when executives said the email platform was a "tax" on Firefox.
"Many inside of Mozilla, including an overwhelming majority of our leadership, feel the need to be laser-focused on activities like Firefox that can have an industry-wide impact," said executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker. "With all due respect to Thunderbird and the Thunderbird community, we have been clear for years that we do not view Thunderbird as having this sort of potential."
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