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Email developer goes commercial

The creator of popular mail transfer software forms a company to design commercial enhancements and to support the program.

Following a trend of the network he helped build, Internet architect Eric Allman is going commercial.

Nearly 20 years ago, the computer programmer developed a simple program for Source code for the masses exchanging email between a government network known as the ARPAnet and the computer system at the University of California at Berkeley. Today, Allman's Sendmail software--which is free for any network administrator to copy, use, and modify--routes an estimated 75 percent of email on the Internet.

Next week, the software will enter a new phase in its evolution. On Monday, Allman will announce the formation of Sendmail Incorporated, a for-profit company in Emeryville, California, that will design commercial enhancements and provide support for the program, known in Internet circles as a mail transfer agent.

"We realized that the Internet is very much at a critical turning point in its evolution," said Greg Olson, a former executive at Integrated Systems who will be chief executive of Sendmail. He added that as more commercial companies take to the Net, free software--also known as freeware or open source software--faces new challenges.

"Free software on the Net is not necessarily the most cost-effective solution for businesses," he explained. "If it does not step up to the challenge of meeting commercial needs, it will be left behind."

Sendmail joins a host of other companies that are bridging the gap between freeware and commercial enterprise. In January, Netscape Communications said it would freely distribute the source code for its Communicator software suite. Caldera and Red Hat both have created moneymaking businesses distributing and supporting the open source operating system known as Linux.

The advantage to open source is that literally thousands of talented developers are free to collaborate on bug fixes, upgrades, and support for the product, saving a company precious in-house resources. A disadvantage to open source is that it often requires more expertise in installing and configuring the software on a particular machine, creating headaches and extra costs for businesses that want to use the programs.

Olson said Sendmail will adopt a "hybrid business model" that simultaneously provides solutions to businesses while preserving the open source status of the software. On Monday, the company will release in beta the next version of the open source, Sendmail 8.9. The final release is slated for early April. The new version will feature extensive tools for administrators to block spam, the company said.

The first commercial product--to be called Sendmail 8.9 Pro--is due out in the third quarter of 1998, and will provide enhancements that are not available in the open source version. See special coverage: How free is Freeware? For instance, the commercial version will be available in a pretested, precompiled binary format, eliminating what many network administrators say is the arduous task of downloading the software off the Net and then customizing it to run on their particular systems.

Olson said Sendmail would peddle its wares primarily to Internet service providers during its first year of operation and then move on to corporate customers during its second year.

Phil Schacter, a senior analyst with the Burton Group, said the plan is likely to work. "There's a market out there for a supported and enriched version of the mail transfer agent," he said. "Both of those marketplaces, I believe, are willing to pay to have a vendor support the product and enhance it."

He added that Sendmail's biggest challenge will be pleasing corporate customers, who will want more sophisticated features built into the software: "They've got a lot of work to do before they have a complete Internet messaging product suitable for a corporate messaging infrastructure."

But Sendmail has a number of advantages, namely its dominant market share. Its closest competitors, Software.Com, Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes--hold just 3 percent of the market. It also has received investments from Sun Microsystems executives Bill Joy and Andy Bechtolscheim.

The company's biggest challenge may be trying to serve what sometimes are mutually exclusive agendas held by those in the open source and commercial communities. If Sendmail is to remain a viable open source program, its free version must contain the same advanced features as the commercial version. That approach may be hard to follow in the commercial world where there are pressures to water down free versions to provide incentives for buying the commercial version.

That approach would be disastrous for Sendmail, said Eric Raymond, a programmer involved in developing open source software for the last 20 years.

In the end, he says, "Sendmail will remain dependent on hackers [in the open source community] for support, testing, and development." If crucial improvements are available in the commercial version only, he warned, "there would be a peasant mob heading for the castle with pitchforks within a couple of weeks."