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Mozilla lights fire under Thunderbird

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Updated Mozilla will step up the pace of on its Thunderbird mail and communications platform next year, to re-invigorate a "stagnant" email client scene.

David Ascher, chief executive of Mozilla Messaging, told The Reg he hopes for a "couple" of releases of Thunderbird in 2010 and also in subsequent years.

Speaking as Thunderbird 3.0 was about to hit release candidate two - and with final code expected imminently - Ascher said he's already thinking about Thunderbird 3.1.

That might sound incremental but while there's been a steady stream of Thunderbird releases each year since version 1.0 in 2003 these have mostly been your classic two decimal point releases - like 1.0.2, which can be import and are loved by project members but do not really move the ball forward.

Ascher didn't say what he's got in mind for Thunderbird 3.1, but he does plan to introduce more experimental new features in the shape of add-ons. This is the way Mozilla's Firefox project operates, with features incorporated into the main product once they are solid.

"Like Firefox, we will move to a more rapid release cycle - where we can provide incremental improvements while leveraging the platform," Ascher told us.

"As Firefox makes the platform better, we can leverage that, and that allows us to do things we can't do in security updates - that are significant improvements."

Ideas from the Mozilla Labs Raindrop project, unveiled in October, could also appear. Raindrop is designed to pull in - and rank the importance of - notifications and updates from Twitter, Facebook, and IM, without them getting in the way of important emails.

"We need to make sure we don't evolve to a system where messaging on the web is lost in the key qualities of the internet we like, like interoperability and anybody can join and create a new node on the internet," Ascher said.

Raindrop is only available as early code, but Ascher said it's realistic to expect some ideas about the future of Raindrop finding themselves in Thunderbird. "The Raindrop research project with Mozilla Labs site runs in parallel to Thunderbird," he said.

Thunderbird 3, according to Ascher, is the first step in a move to really modernize Mozilla's six-year-old client and re-invigorate what he believes has become a stagnant world dominated by Microsoft and Google.

He believes email has stagnated because the ideas it's based on in storage, ranking of messages, and in search were laid down in the days when people got few emails. They have not been updated and cannot scale to cope with today's inboxes - and peoples' multiple inboxes - stuffed with lot and lots of emails per hour.

Version 3 brings Thunderbirds capabilities and performance designed to keep Thunderbird abreast of changes in the world of web-based email and communications since April 2007, when Thunderbird 2.0 was finished. Ascher said that Mozilla has taken the best features found in other clients and that he's most proud of the search.

Thunderbird 3 introduces a completely new search engine based on code used in Firefox, and that lets you screen out emails according to things like whether a message included attachments, different kind of attachments, by the tags you've used and by different accounts.

Also in Thunderbird 3 is the ability, borrowed from Apple, to aggregate special folders across accounts so you can have one inbox that sees all your other email inboxes.

Mozilla is going to be able to step up the pace on Thunderbird because there's more people working on Thunderbird than those who'd worked on previous editions and because there's more funding.

There's 16 people working on messaging as a whole with around three quarters devoting their time to Thunderbird, compared to just two people a few years back. The expansion came after Mozilla announced its internet mail and communications initiative in September 2007, putting Ascher - then chief technology officer and vice president of engineering of tools and language specialist ActiveState - in charge plus $3m into the venture. ®

This article has been updated to say 16 people work on Mozilla messaging.

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