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Memories are Made of This

Who remembers Mitch Kapor? If you do, you’re showing your age in this industry and there are very few people left working of our age who do.

Mitch of course was the man behind Lotus 1-2-3 or at least on of them, the other being Jonathan Sachs – not the Rabbi - .It’s possibly true to say that Kapor contributed as much or even more than Bill Gates to the success of the IBM Personal Computer. Why? Because at the time, in 1983, Digital’s (DEC) Rainbow was a much better Personal Computer than IBM’s, which was really only a marketing experiment that caught-on. Without going too much into the history, Mitch Kapor started Lotus Development (now a moribund division of IBM) and Lotus had a killer integrated spreadsheet application called 1-2-3 that blew the socks off anyone and everyone who saw it. Critically, Lotus 1-2-3 was available on the IBM 8088 DOS platform almost a year in advance of the Digital Rainbow and while this gave Lotus market domination for almost a decade, it gave a jump-start to a relatively insignificant but strategically-positioned Microsoft at the same time.

Later, Gates, like a young Alexander of Macedon decided to eat everyone else’s lunch and enthusiastically decimated the great names of the eighties, Lotus Development, Novell, Word Perfect and the Bay City Rollers but the intellectual Kapor had sensibly retired at the height of his fame, co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and pursued his real interest, the translation of ancient Semitic languages.

Lotus struggled on with Notes, in a dwindling premiership under the leadership of Jim Manzi until it was finally relegated to the Sunday league by its sale to IBM.

Why am I telling you this? Because Mitch Kapor is back with a new band and a new idea, ‘The Chandler Project ‘and he’s developing an Open Source rival to Microsoft’s Outlook.

Kapor’s own Weblog tells us: “The Chandler project is intended first and foremost to deliver an application suitable for daily use to handle email, calendar, contacts, and tasks. We believe Chandler will embody components of great potential usefulness to many applications such as the repository and the view manager, so it is fair to think of Chandler as a platform also”.

In principle, Chandler sounds like an interesting project but in practise, I have to wonder whether any company or individual is in a position to wrest present or future market share away from Microsoft, risking millions of dollars as a consequence. Just because nobody has succeeded in the past, one shouldn’t be overly pessimistic but would any reader be prepared to bet their own money against Microsoft Exchange by supporting an Open Source rival? I don’t see any hands raised.

Kapor does point out that: “It may also be accurate to say that if you only want the out-of-the-box, single user, single machine, basic email, contacts, calendar, and tasks of Outlook or a similar app and that you are already happy with that app, then Chandler might have nothing to add because you would never use the extra features”.

My own view is that while companies may not like the costs of doing business with Microsoft, there’s a certain comfort in not being dragged back to the eighties software bazaar and all the choices that went with it. Microsoft’s Outlook has its limitations but increasingly defines messaging and in fact, there almost a juxtaposition between the two in people’s minds. I worry that many of the imaginative Open Source ideas that we are now seeing will end their days as expensive but interesting experiments. And like the return of ‘The Blues Brothers’, where the music and software innovators of the eighties created an environment of remarkable diversity, today, we live in the age of MTV and MSN and that ‘M’sums it up for me.


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