*Commentary "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
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
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
Kapor spoke to CNET News.com about his open-source and charity
foundations, what it will take to challenge Microsoft and the movement
*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 organising 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
organisations 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 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 organised.
*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
*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 favour 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
*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
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
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 organisation.
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.
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 non-profit. 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 non-profit 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
generalisations. 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
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.