Lotus co-founder looking to build open-source apps

The co-founder of the former Lotus Development and creator of Lotus 1-2-3, the first must-have software spreadsheet application for business computing, is now at work building an open-source personal information manager (PIM) package for the masses.

Mitchell Kapor, 51, has had a storied IT past since his days at Lotus, the company he helped co-found in 1982 and was eventually purchased by IBM. In 1990, he helped create the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights to protect electronic and digital civil liberties, including online privacy and free expression. Since then, he has served on technology boards and has been an investor in IT companies and ideas, working to help them get off the ground.

Kapor, who lives in San Francisco, said in a telephone interview that this latest project is about making a contribution to an IT world that has given him much throughout his career.

The concept for an open-source PIM came to Kapor more than a year ago, when he realized that the new killer apps for users are e-mail and PIM contact information. And while there are lots of choices in the marketplace, some people, including Macintosh and Linux users, don't have an ample selection of products to suit their varied needs, he said.

"The idea in general is to create more and better opportunities for people, especially people who are less well-served, like people on Macs or Linux and also small to medium-size organizations," Kapor said.

For small and midsize businesses, he said, getting advanced collaboration features often requires a big server to run an off-the-shelf application such as Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes. "Big companies complain about how much it costs, and small companies can't afford it," he said. "So they're underserved."

That's how his open-source PIM project, code-named Chandler, was born.

Kapor created the Open Source Applications Foundation last year as a nonprofit group that could serve as the base for the project, while making it clear to open-source contributing developers that the work was for the public good. "I wanted to send a very clear signal that this is not a vehicle for personal economic ambition," Kapor said.

The foundation's Web site went online just 10 days ago and has already gotten many inquiries from prospective volunteer developers, he said. His paid staff has grown so far to two, with another 10 expected. The volunteers so far include Andy Hertzfeld, who was a member of the original Apple Macintosh development team.

"We've been working, doing a lot of brainstorming," Kapor said. "I've started a lot of things. I'm a serial entrepreneur. I'm comfortable feeling my way through the early stages of a plan."

So why is he doing this when he is comfortably wealthy and not really needing a new job?

"I do think it's important to give something back, and increasingly that's what I've been doing," Kapor said. Working and innovating has given him a nice car, a nice house and other material trappings, he said. "I've never understood people who get more cars, more houses, and I like my life to be meaningful."

Skeptics, though, might say this project is Kapor's way of taking a dig at Microsoft and its overwhelming presence in the marketplace.

That's only partially true, Kapor said. "Innovation in the commercial space has really come to a standstill," he said. "Some of that is due to Microsoft's dominant position, which makes it foolish to try to raise venture capital to start a new [competing] company.

"The PIM has become in the Internet era, for many people, the single most important application that they use, because people spend huge amounts of time with their e-mail," he said. "I think there are lots of opportunities to make improvements."

The first release of the finished open-source PIM software is expected by the fourth quarter of next year or in early 2004. Early versions will be in developers' hands by the end of this year for free. Volunteers will build it and contribute their additions and improvements to make it better under the open-source model.

One thing that keeps him encouraged, Kapor said, is that his project is starting out just as Linux did in 1991 when Linus Torvalds starting building an operating system to create a better mousetrap. Today, that project has moved from its very modest beginnings into a growing IT industry with uses that are still being found everyday.

"We've been enormously influenced by the success of Linux and how that was done," he said.

Kapor, however, has more modest hopes for his project. "If we're successful, there will definitely be niche adoption of the product," he said. "That's why in the marketing sense and dollar sense, it's not a threat" to Microsoft and other industry players. "We're taking it one step at a time."

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