Open Source

At the heart of the open-source revolution

Lotus founder Mitch Kapor oversees two open-source software foundations. His success could make Microsoft miserable.

Stay on top of the latest tech news with our free IT News Digest newsletter, delivered each weekday. Automatically sign up today!

By Paul Festa
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

"As an entrepreneur many times over, he hopes he's really getting it right this time." So states half of Mitch Kapor's terse biography on the Open Source Applications Foundation staff page.

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?
A: Open source is important to different groups of people for different reasons. For consumers, it's one thing; for developers, it's another. But basically, it's an entirely different way of organizing the large-scale economic activity of creating and distributing software (and) has many advantages. It's not a cure-all.

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?
One of the big events that changed open source a lot took place after I left Lotus in the late 1980s. That's when Linux started and, in particular, that's when other licensing models besides the pure GPL (General Public License) started to be more widely used. Open-source products started to move into the larger world of business software. And that wasn't even on the horizon when I was at Lotus.

By the time it got to the very late '90s, it was clear that it had become difficult to innovate successfully using the

(Firefox) represents proof that a well-done, well-wrought open-source product can have global impact.
proprietary model if you wanted to develop everyday applications that anyone with a personal computer would use: e-mail, spreadsheets, word processors. (Open source) became an end-run around the stagnation that I saw going on. It was very frustrating for lots of people in that the existing products that were out there simply weren't up to the task of handling their e-mail and keeping their lives organized.

Is that still the case?
It is. The great thing that's happened of late is to see the early, huge momentum of Firefox, attracting millions of users and beginning to grow its market share appreciably. That represents proof that a well-done, well-wrought open-source product can have global impact as an application—and I consider a Web browser to be one of those everyday products. Is Firefox ultimately going to fizzle?
Nobody knows what's going to happen. It's certainly not inevitable that Firefox's market share will continue to increase. I think open-source advocates would do well to be relatively cautious and avoid making claims and predictions. On the other hand, there are some fundamentals that favor Firefox. It's a great product, small, fast and more secure. You don't see anybody disputing that. The next question is how much mileage there is to get out of it, ultimately. Certainly, it has already caused Microsoft to improve IE. 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 am the board chair. It's like being on the board of any for-profit or nonprofit—I'm not at all involved in day-to-day operations but rather with overall governance and consulting on strategic directions. So I meet regularly with (Mozilla Foundation president) Mitchell Baker. I've been covering Mozilla almost since the beginning, I've spoken with Mitchell Baker many times, and I've still never gotten a good sense of her.
I have to say that I have often found that people underestimate her. I know that when the project was inside Netscape/AOL, she did not receive the regard from the AOL executives that I thought was really due to her. Mozilla is a really interesting and complex project and organization.

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.

Mozilla was like the Harry Potter of open source.
I respect her leadership, which is very low-key and not charismatic—the opposite of the Larry Ellison style. She has been effective in the face of real challenges. I got involved at the point when we extracted it from AOL.

How did that come about, anyway?
There was a recognition that it didn't make sense for that project to be inside AOL, but it was sort of stuck in the birth canal. It turned out that I was able to act as an intermediary or midwife because I know Mitchell, who has worked at the Open Source Applications Foundation, and I also know the vice chairman of AOL, Ted Leonsis, who, at the time, was running the AOL service. And he was one of the top handful of executives at the whole thing. I ran into him at a conference, and we got to talking, and I was able to make this thing happen. And we brokered an arrangement to spin Mozilla out into its own nonprofit. So that was a year and a half ago. You also have two of your own foundations.
Oh, at least. I'm almost entirely working on the nonprofit side. There's the Open Source Applications Foundation and the Mitchell Kapor Foundation. Then there's also the Level Playing Field Institute. Let me ask you about what's going on at the Open Source Applications Foundation. What are you doing with Chandler?
Chandler is a personal information manager whose principle functions are e-mail and calendar. It also has some contact, address and task management.

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.

In terms of the e-mail and the calendar components, Chandler sounds a lot like what Mozilla is already doing with Thunderbird and Sunbird. Aren't your open-source foundations stepping on each other's toes?
It's absolutely in the same category as Thunderbird. Sunbird is an existing community calendar, which is basic and not complete or robust. They're using that as a base, adding a lot of things to it and integrating that with Thunderbird.

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?
It's pretty mixed. It's difficult and dangerous to make enormous generalizations. You'll find a number of progressive corporations that stand up for social responsibility, and tech companies are not like mining or these extractive industries that are wreaking enormous environmental damage.

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.

Editor's Picks