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Sendmail may turn tools over to open source

E-mail software maker with deep links to open source is looking at transferring over some substantial technology for development.

BOSTON--Sendmail, whose products are built on the software that delivers many e-mail messages, may release some substantial new technology as open source.

The company has a long involvement in the collaborative software movement. It sells proprietary software that works with a popular open-source component, also called Sendmail, used to transfer e-mail from one server to another. But some of those proprietary components may not remain so, said Eric Allman, the company's chief science officer and the original Sendmail author.

"My guess is you'll see stuff coming out this year, but it will go on longer than that," Allman said in an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here.

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One candidate for sharing is the company's Mailcenter Store, Allman said. The technology archives e-mail once it reaches its destination server and lets personal computers access it over a network. Another possibility is the Mailstream Manager, an engine that handles mail according to policies and that accepts plug-ins for tasks such as screening out viruses, or complying with regulatory requirements.

Sendmail competes with commercial products such as Microsoft Exchange and open-source products such as Postfix.

Open-source software, which may be freely seen, modified and redistributed by anyone, has moved from a fringe hobbyist phenomenon to a mainstream programming approach. Start-ups and established software companies are using the approach, even though it can be a challenge to build a business around software that is given away freely on the Internet. However, some companies, such as database specialist MySQL and Linux seller Red Hat, have found ways.

Reasons to be open
Allman listed several reasons why Sendmail is discussing the open-source move. For one thing, it can lead to greater renown for the Sendmail products and broader adoption, he said.

"You get a certain amount of cachet. The more people that know about your stuff, the better," Allman said. Broader use of open-source components helps sales of accompanying proprietary software, he said.

For another, outsiders can provide ideas and find bugs, sometimes supplying source code along with the information.

Allman began the Sendmail programming project in 1981 for the classic "scratch your own itch" motivation that often appears in open-source projects. But in the years since, intellectual property rules and legal constraints have made him leery of the software industry.

"If I were a college-age kid, I would have to look hard if I wanted to get into computer software," Allman said. When he started, he'd have an idea and write software accordingly. "Now I have to think, 'Am I going to get sued for giving away this code?'"

"The intellectual property situation is bad and getting worse. To be a programmer, it requires that you understand as much law as you do technology," he said.

And while he didn't suggest commercial interests are an unmitigated evil--which would have been surprising, given his own role at Sendmail--he did say they have altered the open-source landscape.

"Because (open source) is fashionable, there is a lot more money in it," he said. "Money is a good thing, but money is a bad thing. Things are progressing a lot faster, but they're more focused on commercial stuff that's going to make money."

The result is that open-source programmers are likely to launch projects where they think there's a commercial reason rather than just a technological reason, he said.