The French are giving Microsoft's products the boot and embracing open source, including Mozilla Thunderbird, a project which they have become a contributor to.  (Source: Telegraph UK)

Thunderbird 3  (Source: Beta News)
Mozilla and the French Army have a common enemy

Microsoft's Outlook commands a healthy lead in email client software.  Most businesses use the client for their daily communication.  However, much like Microsoft's lead in the browser race, its lead in the email client business has been slowly eroded by a Mozilla offering -- in this case, the Mozilla Thunderbird client.

Now in a sign that the tide may be turning in the email client war, the French army has enlisted to help Mozilla in its fight.  France's military was aided in their decision by a November 6, 2007 directive that basically encouraged government organizations to pursue open source software.  The government order tells the state agencies to "Seek maximum technological and commercial independence."

Frustrated that Microsoft's proprietary client did not allow open, easy to implement extensions, the military decided to give Outlook the boot and turned to Mozilla's client to create extensions to improve security and bookkeeping.  Lieutenant-Colonel Frederic Suel of the Ministry of Defense describes, "We started with a military project, but quickly generalized it."

The result of their work has now been released in part to the public.  Mozilla and France claim that the open system of extensions has allowed the new modified Thunderbird client, dubbed "TrustedBird" to be much more secure that Microsoft Outlook.  Besides use by French military and police, the client is also used by Finance, Interior and Culture and is installed on 80,000 government computers in total.

TrustedBird code is bundled into the just released Thunderbird 3, making for a very secure client.  Besides the French military, over 1,000 technical professionals worldwide freely offered their time and expertise to make the client's updated design.  Describes David Ascher, chief executive of Mozilla Messaging, "The primary changes (the military) have made allow them to know for sure when messages have been read, which is critical in a command-and-control organization.  [The French military is] helping build an ecosystem of specialists around the world that provide specialized add-ons, leveraging our platform to help meet customer needs."

The French are also looking to boot other Microsoft products, opting for open-source initiatives driven by volunteer efforts.  They're slowly phasing in use of Samba server programs (instead of Windows server), Linux distros (instead of Windows), Firefox (instead of Internet Explorer), and Open Office (instead of Microsoft Office).  The French understand that even "free" open-source software isn't entirely free and has its costs.  Describes, Col. Bruno Poirier-Coutansais of the information technology team Gendarmerie Nationale. "It is never completely free." 

In particular, the French are having to pay to train new employees on how to properly use Thunderbird, as well as to retrain existing employees.  Those costs, along with Microsoft's excellent technical support initially caused the military to avoid Thunderbird.  Microsoft has a large headquarters in France, while Mozilla only has a remote office with 10 employees.  Mr. Poirier-Coutansais admits that his organization's reluctance was largely "because it is less reassuring than to have a renowned company that can bring quality support."

As for Thunderbird 3, its new implementation qualifies it for NATO's closed messaging system.  France has showed off the new client to NATO, and is urging NATO (which the U.S. is a member of) to embrace the client as a whole.  That doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility as the UK and U.S. governments, arguably NATO's two most powerful members, have been drifting towards open source of late.

Some aren't convinced, though, that businesses and government organizations by-and-large will buy into open-source software.  States Bernard-Louis Roques, chief executive of Truffle Capital IT, an investment fund specializing in software, "The professional market is showing more resistance to open source software."

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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