Lotus founder Mitch Kapor oversees two open-source software foundations. His success could make Microsoft miserable.
It's an odd statement, considering that Kapor got it so spectacularly right the first time. In 1982, he co-founded Lotus Development, later acquired by IBM, and co-wrote the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet application commonly credited with spurring the personal computer's conquest of the business world.
Although his latest effort is unfolding in comparative obscurity, many in the open-source world are hoping, along with Kapor, that he gets this one right and that the results once again rearrange the dynamics of the computer industry.
Having made his fortune during the heyday of proprietary software, the 54-year-old Kapor finds himself at the forefront of two foundations devoted to open-source software development. He is both president and chair of the OSAF and chairman of the Mozilla Foundation, the group founded by Netscape Communications to develop its browser and later spun off by Netscape acquirer AOL Time Warner.
The goal of the foundations isn't to create a new killer app but rather to use the open-source development model to dislodge Microsoft's Web-browsing and e-mail software titles from their dominant market positions.
Kapor spoke to CNET News.com about his open-source and charity foundations, what it will take to challenge Microsoft and the movement behind Mozilla.Q: Let's start with the basics: Why open source?
I think that for people who use software, in the long run, open-source products are going to be less expensive and of higher quality. Also, open-source products put more control into the hands of people and organizations that use the software, which is a good thing.What did your experience at Lotus contribute to your philosophy today?
By the time it got to the very late '90s, it was clear that it had become difficult to innovate successfully using the
Why is that? Why should it take something like Firefox to improve IE?
Microsoft does not respond and improve products otherwise. The Mozilla Foundation does not have financial goals, so it can take credit for whatever improvements happen in the browser, whether they're in Firefox or not. By the standards of the project itself, to the extent that the net result is that IE's fundamental security problems get addressed, that, too, is a victory. As for the analysts who look at this, I doubt that's their criteria for success.
The other thing is that enterprises are not, in many cases, very satisfied with a single Microsoft alternative. This is a known and longstanding problem. They have been held back by a lack of alternatives that are comparable and satisfying in all the ways important to enterprises.
With Firefox, which begins to pass the threshold for enterprise acceptance, the question is, How will they respond? It's not a question of the economics of it, but will it help them to manage their computing infrastructure better? As for whether Firefox is overhyped, we'll have to see how this plays out.What exactly is your role at the Mozilla Foundation?
I think it was like the Harry Potter of open source. You know how all the movies open with him living with his aunt and uncle, who give him no respect and lock him up? People had written off Mozilla on multiple occasions. I felt like and continue to feel like she does a remarkable job in a low-key way in shepherding that project through unique and difficult circumstances. I think the renaissance with Firefox and Thunderbird--without her this would not have happened.
One of the goals for Chandler all along has been to start with more of a clean sheet of paper in how we design the application. The other alternative is to do something more conventional that looks and works more or less like Outlook. There's nothing wrong with that, but as I was saying before, one of the goals is to see if we could innovate to improve the user experience in fundamental ways. We will either fail or succeed in how well we do with that goal.
Apart from writing this thing from the ground up, what are your larger strategic goals for Chandler?
In the same way that Firefox has established itself as very viable open-source browser alternative, one strategic goal would be to establish another alternative in another important software applications category--a viable open-source alternative that has the potential, as it matures, to reach ultimately millions of people and a developer community of thousands. Those are goals which we will get to in several stages, not all at once.
The aspiration level of Sunbird, by everyone's account, is significantly more modest and different than what we're trying to do in Chandler. We're trying to provide a well-engineered, well-designed but vanilla IMAP client and some vanilla calendaring. But when I was talking about overcoming information silos and better integration between the different kinds of data that a PIM manages--that's a Chandler aspiration. In Outlook, your data is in separate silos when often you'd like to see things much better connected.The Mitchell Kapor Foundation and the Level Playing Field Initiative are both concerned with social, environmental and educational issues. When it comes to those issues, how would you rate the high-tech industry as a whole?
At the same time, I'd say there's still a kind of Silicon Valley attitude that doesn't take its corporate responsibilities seriously. They say, "We help people get rich, and they should decide in their private lives what kind of philanthropy to support." That's irresponsible.
If you're running a business, you have employees, and that comes with very basic responsibilities to be a good citizen. That's not a mainstream attitude in the technology industry.