The list of features that Apple highlights as coming in the next revision of Leopard is interesting.
They all sound pretty good to me, and I suspect they’ll make what’s already a good mail client better. While they’re all doable in Thunderbird, it’s clear that we are behind when it comes to the state of the art in email client features, even comparing against and end-user product. That should be sobering to anyone who thinks Thunderbird is “done”.
There are two ways of reacting to that realization. One is to give up and go home. The other is to see it as an opportunity. What should we learn from what they’ve done, and where should we catch up, and where should we try to beat them? While right now we’re behind in some features (and, undoubtedly, ahead in some others), we have a couple of theoretical advantages which I’d like to talk about.
First, though, it’s worth pointing out that one of the most innovative and forward-thinking companies in the industry is clearly continuing to invest in their desktop mail client. They’re doing so because they’ve figured out that mail client innovation has stalled, and that email innovation is so important to real people that it can help people switch to macs, even though it’s an expensive process requiring premium hardware. To those who doubt the need for desktop mail innovation, and to those who claim that current webmail products solve all needs, I present: Steve Jobs.
He’s not alone, by the way — Venture Beat had a story on four recent startups in the field that’s worth reading — many of those comments sound a lot like me (or I sound like them).
Now we could just be lazy and take as an operating principle to take Apple’s mail innovations and push those to the broader market of non-mac users. But I’d like to think that being an open source community, we can do better, in a variety of ways:
- Because we’re open, we can get more people involved. One of the consequences of openness is that it might shine light on individual or group differences which a single company could miss, or, deliberately not try to solve (think long tail, market segmentation, customizations, etc.)
- Because we’re cross-platform, the possible market reach is much bigger than Apple’s. Furthermore, thanks to the Mozilla platform, most code changes end up cross-platform by default. It’s very easy to underestimate this — Apple, Microsoft, RedHat, Novell, etc. can beat each other up until they’re red in the bottom-line, and Thunderbird will still work on their systems.
- Because we’re not there to sell an operating system, we don’t need to wait for an operating system rev to release a new product. We can release whenever fits. The corollary is that we can not release if it’s not right yet.
There are a bunch of places where they have a leg up which we’ll have to find ways to deal with.
- As a closed-source company, Apple can add features into software “simply” by licensing technology bits, thereby using cash (or proxies for cash) to resolve intellectual property issues (the inclusion of PDF features throughout the OS is a good example of that). Thunderbird’s licensing model means that sometimes we’ll need to work hard to resolve licensing issues, or even reimplement features at times.
- Apple has a culture which has allowed great user interface design to emerge in finished products. Open source, traditionally, has not, although Firefox shows that you can have an open source project that’s also good looking and highly usable. This is an area where I think Thunderbird has some catching up to do, but we have some good role models to learn from
- Apple has a clear picture of their target users, and they seem to stay pretty consistent. Thunderbird, as far as I can tell, doesn’t yet. Another action item.
One important difference which I think is fascinating to think about in this “better/worse” comparison is freedom of choice vs. freedom from choice. In many ways, “adopting” the mac is a powerful decision because it frees you as a user from having to choose which mail client to use (just use the bundled one), which image catalog software (the bundled one), which music player (the bundled one), etc. Open source and open standards-based systems, on the other hand, traditionally believe that the power to change your mind, as a user, and to pick the application that best suits your individual needs is more important than the simplicity that comes from not having to think too hard about so many choices.
One possible thread when thinking of Thunderbird futures is that we might wish to help users by providing them with fewer, smarter choices inside Thunderbird. I’m not only thinking of “fewer preferences”, which is a point many have made before, but also promoting best practices for dealing with email overflow, possible partnerships with providers of high-grade server-side systems, and the like. Sometimes, making the product better means making it simpler, even if it may feel like “robbing” the user of the power to make a different choice.
I predict all kinds of heated arguments when we get there…