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Eudora Goes Open Source with Thunderbird

Qualcomm announced last week that future versions of the venerable email program Eudora, which the company has sold for many years, will become an open-source collaboration with the Mozilla Foundation. Steve Dorner, vice president of technology for Qualcomm’s Eudora group and the software’s original developer, says he’ll lead a group that will “build an open-source mailer with Eudora features on top of Thunderbird.”

First created in 1988, Eudora was a popular Macintosh email client in the early days of the Internet, and it still enjoys broad use, especially at academic institutions and among Mac veterans who refuse to give up its power-user capabilities in favor of newer software. In 1992, Qualcomm (otherwise known for developing wireless phone technologies) acquired the software from the University of Illinois and hired Steve Dorner, and has continued to develop Mac OS and Windows versions.

“I was getting really tired of maintaining Eudora’s elderly code base, as well as working on extremely boring things like HTML rendering,” Dorner told TidBITS. He looks forward to “using Thunderbird as a base,” allowing him to focus on “the things that make up the core productivity parts of the Eudora experience.” The company picked the cross-platform Thunderbird product because, he says, “it has strengths where Eudora has weaknesses, and will complement us quite nicely. Mozilla is also happy to have us developing for their platform, and has made it very clear to us that they welcome our effort.” He hopes “that improvements [will] flow freely between the two mailers.”

Qualcomm plans to release the first freeware, open-source version of Eudora in the first half of 2007. In the meantime, the company has released the final commercial versions (6.2.4 for Mac OS X and 7.1 for Windows), which will continue to be available, now for $20, with support provided for six months. Existing support contracts and site licenses will be honored until the end of the current terms, and paid and sponsored-mode versions of the current software will continue to work “in perpetuity.”

Steve Dorner admits he doesn’t know which parts of Eudora are most useful to its proponents, and asks users to speak up and offer input “on what our priorities should be.” Users who wish to weigh in, or developers who’d like to pitch in for the open-source effort, should visit the Eudora developer page.

The just-released Eudora 6.2.4 is a minor upgrade, offering mostly a new importer for the Tiger version of Apple Mail (as much as it seems somewhat unlikely that many people would be switching from Mail to Eudora until progress is seen on the open source version of Eudora), updated SpamWatch definitions to help Eudora keep up with spammer tricks (available only in Paid mode), and a variety of minor tweaks and bug fixes. Since it costs $20 to keep using Eudora in Paid mode, the decision of whether or not to upgrade is mostly a matter of whether you’ve been having trouble with now-fixed bugs. It’s a 12.3 MB download.

Staff Roundtable — Although not everyone on the staff currently uses Eudora, many of us still do, and our long experience with the program generated some opinions.

[Adam Engst]: I’ve already had numerous people asking me what I think of Qualcomm’s announcement, often with what seem to be ominous undertones or the assumption that this announcement means the end of Eudora as we know it. But in fact, I’m happy to hear that Qualcomm will be working with the Mozilla Foundation to build the next version of Eudora on top of Thunderbird. It’s a relief to have a strong public statement of direction after watching Eudora exist in a kind of corporate limbo for several years, never receiving the resources that were necessary to give it a modern code base. Although I don’t have any particular experience with Thunderbird, open source projects generally work well under the hood, so a combination of open source underpinnings and Eudora’s power-user feature set could be great. Plus, although Eudora has been available for free in various forms over the years, having the full program become freeware will enable it to compete better with bundled applications like Mail.

That said, I do have some reservations. First, will Eudora attract developers who will make substantive contributions? I’d guess that Eudora has a disproportionate number of developers in its user base, and universities that desperately want to avoid Microsoft Outlook (and they do) may well be interested in contributing development resources. Second, will the Eudora team be able to create something compelling in a reasonable time frame? I’m sure it will be plenty of work just to get a basic set of Eudora’s current features working, but email is crying for a complete rethinking.

What I’d really hope to see is a plug-in capability in the new Eudora that enables developers to create innovative plug-ins, much as has happened with the open source Firefox Web browser. Firefox itself isn’t particularly unusual, but the numerous plug-ins extend its functionality in a wide variety of ways. Plug-ins for the new Eudora would seem likely, since Thunderbird already offers this capability.

I encourage anyone interested in the future of Eudora, whether or not you’re a developer, to participate in the open source project. Goodness knows that open source software could use more user interface designers, documentation specialists, and normal users to provide real-world feedback.

Also, Jason Snell of Macworld and I discussed the Eudora announcement with Chuck Joiner on a special edition of our MacNotables podcast. It’s a hoot, so give it a listen!

[Glenn Fleishman]: I have to ask, as a loyal user of Bare Bones Software’s Mailsmith, what Eudora becoming free and open-source does to the cosmos of email clients for Mac OS X. It’s pretty clear there’s a very small market to sell email clients to Mac OS X users based on Qualcomm exiting the paid market – and you could use Eudora in one of two free modes, anyway – and the paucity of unbundled commercial email clients.

Apple’s Mail is part of Mac OS X. Eudora has a free and paid mode. Entourage is part of Microsoft Office. AOL’s mail is part of the AOL client. Thunderbird is free. PowerMail and GyazMail are commercial, and although I have no idea of their user bases, neither shows up in my email with any frequency. And Mailsmith is commercial software.

Of course, most Eudora users I know used the free Sponsored mode, which means that switching to free, open-source (no sponsor) as their only method of release isn’t as profound a shift as switching from a commercial client. This may not, therefore, affect Bare Bones or any bundled/free mail clients’ market share or mind share.

What will be interesting is whether the open-source community and existing projects merge into a Eudora/Thunderbird code base, or even fork from Thunderbird into something completely new. I have long said that open-source can’t make decent graphical user interfaces, and that’s still been generally true, with projects under the Mozilla Foundation (which is heavily funded by corporations and donations) being the biggest exceptions.

[Mark H. Anbinder] No doubt because of its origins in higher education, Eudora enjoys a bigger market share in academia than anywhere else. That share has been dropping, though, as Eudora’s ability to keep up with modern mail habits has fallen behind. At Cornell University, for example, Eudora users (especially on the Windows platform) have complained about inadequate IMAP support, and Steve Dorner would be the first to admit that the software’s capability to display HTML-encrufted email is stuck in the 1990s.

Even though many users, looking for a more modern user experience or better IMAP handling, have migrated to Thunderbird or Mail over the last couple of years, Eudora’s power-user contingent is holding on as long as it can, unwilling to give up years of perfectly tuned filters, fast and powerful searching, and comprehensive support for multiple “personalities.”

Filters and personalities are certainly the key reasons I still use Eudora; it lets me handle mail to and from a dozen separate addresses in a way that no other clients I’ve tried can offer, including both Mail and Thunderbird. Combine that with over a decade of mail stored in Eudora, and you can imagine I’m looking forward to a new Eudora that will let me migrate effectively, gaining modern email features without losing the core capabilities I’m accustomed to.

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