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Perspectives: Mitch Kapor's impossible dream

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the Lotus founder's search for an Outlook killer is a blast from the past. But can Kapor outduel Bill Gates?

I must have been one of the 10 remaining people on Earth, along with the application's inventor and immediate family, who still used Lotus Organizer.

While other personal information managers got crammed with bells and whistles, I valued the spare design of this vintage software application. It worked without fuss and was easy to use. (Full disclosure as a computer curmudgeon: I also was a die-hard Xywrite user until the computing industry sold me out and embraced graphical interfaces.)

But my holdout status is officially over. Organizer, long relegated to the software orphanage by Lotus, simply can't cut it any longer in my increasingly Microsoft-centric work environment. So goodbye Organizer, hello Microsoft Outlook.

My raising of the white flag came as I learned about Mitch Kapor's ambitious plan for a open-source "Interpersonal Information Manager." If this ever becomes ready for prime time, I plan to offer my heartiest congratulations, as there can't ever be enough software diversity. Truth be told, however, I think Kapor is too late to make much of a difference.

The founder of Lotus and the designer of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Kapor is undeniably a computer legend. Along with the likes of Borland's Philippe Kahn, Ed Esber of Ashton-Tate and Bill Gates, he was one of the stars in the tech firmament at a fun time in the early software industry.

Kapor, whose post-Lotus career included stints as angel investor, venture capitalist and social philosopher, never came close to repeating the startling success he enjoyed with Lotus. The same goes for most of the others. After selling Ashton-Tate, Esber became a recluse. Monsieur Kahn, who wants nothing to do anymore with software, spends his time these days trying to figure out how to marry wireless technology, the Internet and digital media. (Bonne chance!) As for Gates? Well, you know how that story turned out.

Truth be told, though, he may be too late to make much of a difference.
In this second act, Kapor's not angling for the money or the glory so much as he is looking to make life less comfortable for Microsoft. The open-source project he heads is working on a PIM that will run on the Macintosh, Linux and Windows platforms and won't require an Exchange server. Kapor, who has stirred up considerable excitement with the announcement, says he's undertaking the effort "in the spirit of Lotus Agenda" (an innovative DOS-based application that Lotus later killed).

I hope Kapor proves me wrong, but his ambition to build an operating system-independent Microsoft Outlook killer (my words, not his) rests upon the optimistic assumption that a better product will always trump inertia and thus loosen Microsoft's virtual hammerlock on the information technology world.

That's a leap of faith. Ten years ago, I might have taken that bet. Not these days when traditionally conservative IT managers are especially gun-shy about change.

Like most Microsoft applications, Outlook does contain its fair share of wasted goodies. But the product works fine for the usual mail, schedule and contact.

Kapor wants to shake up the status quo. Though Outlook has lots to offer, he says it's so complex as to render "most of its functionality moot." Kapor's only partly right about that. Like most Microsoft applications, Outlook does contain its fair share of wasted goodies. But the product works fine for the usual mail, schedule and contact tasks.

Kapor also believes small and medium-sized organizations are chafing at having to pay big bucks for Exchange so they can take full advantage of Outlook's information-sharing features. Let's be honest: That's hardly the reason companies buy Exchange. What's more, Microsoft is quite ruthless about gutting prices when it encounters stiff competition. A monopoly enjoying record profits has the luxury of going to the mattresses anytime.

Few comers have successfully taken on Microsoft of late. My hunch is that this venture is fated to go down in the annals as an act of knight-errantry. But while the project remains vaporware (or, should I say, Kaporware), Kapor, a one-time TM (Transcendental Meditation) teacher, has accomplished one not-so-small feat: He's got people talking about software again. And considering the otherwise depressing state of the tech world, that's no small feat.

Now if he could only do something about fixing Organizer.