Thunderbird logoFor years, Ubuntu's default email client was Evolution. Then, last year, Canonical switched to Mozilla Thunderbird. But now recent doubts over the future of Thunderbird -- most of them pretty speculative -- have spawned worries that Thunderbird might, in its turn, disappear from Ubuntu. Will it? And more importantly, would it really matter to many people? Here are some thoughts.

First, a little background. Last week, a leaked email raised concerns over the future of the Mozilla project's commitment to Thunderbird, the offline email client that complements Mozilla's more massively popular Web browser, Firefox. At the moment, it's far from clear that Mozilla intends to discontinue active Thunderbird development, but that hasn't stopped speculation that Canonical might opt to find a new email program for Ubuntu.

Thunderbird and Ubuntu: What's Really at Stake

I'm not a Thunderbird fan. For the last several years I've mostly used browser-based webmail, and before that I preferred Evolution (despite some inadequacies).

If I did depend on Thunderbird, though, I wouldn't be too worried by the recent news and hype. For one, since Thunderbird is part of the application stack in Ubuntu 12.04, which will remain officially supported by Canonical for five years, it clearly won't be disappearing entirely from the Ubuntu world for a long time to come, even if future Ubuntu releases switch to a different client. Ubuntu "Community Manager" Jono Bacon has gone to lengths to assure users of the same.

But the requirements of the Ubuntu support cycle aside, it has always seemed to me that, despite Canonical's official nod to usability concerns when adopting Thunderbird, the biggest factor in the decision was probably a desire to get away from dependency on the GNOME project. It was a move consistent with the broader switch toward the Unity interface, which has made GNOME a fleeting memory for many Ubuntu users. (Except all of those, of course, who hate Unity and manually replace it with a different desktop environment.)

My inclination, therefore, is to believe that as long as it can, Canonical will stick with Thunderbird simply because there is no other good, GNOME-independent option. Sure, there are a litany of other email clients out there, but Thunderbird and Evolution are the only feature-rich choices available to Linux users.

Goodbye, Thunderbird; Hello, Webmail?

Of course, there is another possibility for Canonical if it is concerned over the implications of the Mozilla-Thunderbird debacle: It could simply cease shipping an offline email client with Ubuntu altogether. Such a move would reduce Ubuntu's upstream dependencies, save space in the installation image and make it that much easier for Canonical to push Ubuntu as the operating system of the cloud-based future, not the intermittently connected past.

Without a doubt, a standalone email program is essential for some users. But for most people -- if surveys like this one are any evidence -- webmail is sufficient. It would not be unreasonable for Canonical to suggest that those who need a program like Thunderbird or Evolution should install it themselves, while everyone else will be covered by the Web browser provided out-of-the-box. And then Mozilla's plans for Thunderbird wouldn't have to matter so much to Ubuntu users at all.