PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

The messaging on the wall

Jan 2003

As long as Linux can be portrayed as the refuge of nerds who are happy to type documents directly in the form of longhand Postscript using Vi (the only text editor that’s less comprehensible than Microsoft’s famous Edlin), the cosy world of Microsoft was safe from threat. So having disposed of one potential Armageddon from the upstart Netscape web browser when Gates famously got into gear and took the internet seriously, after originally trying it on with his usual proprietary efforts, there was only one thing that could go wrong in the cosy monopoly of the desktop productivity software business: someone might devise a suite of freeware applications for Linux that rivalled MS Office.

Well, although not quite freeware, Star Office has been around a while and continues to nibble at the edges of MS Office.  But if you were one of the steadily growing band of Linux fans looking for the breakthrough moment, what would you ask Microsoft to do that would be most useful in really turbo-charging your hopes for an open source world? Correct – you would ask them to complicate their already draconian licensing policy, put the cost of ownership up, and keep on producing gratuitous annual buggy upgrades to keep the stockholders happy, and the users paranoid wondering about essential productivity aid that they might be missing.

Meantime, Linux seems to be attracting a number of old-time PC luminaries running companies in the sector as hobbies. Ray Noorda, the bloke that made his bones as the founder of the once almighty Novell, has nudged Caldera along for several years now without making a real breakthrough, but doing steady and progressive work to make the Linux and Unix more accessible.

And now another of the independently wealthy founding fathers of the desktop computing era, Mitch Kapor, co-founder of the curiously named but highly successful Lotus Development of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, is heading up (and financing with $5m of his own money) a project to build a free, open-source “equivalent” of Microsoft Outlook.  Well, it’s early days and early reports tend to get distorted by the scarily non-technical reporting of financial journalists, but although I doubt if the news has Bill Gates running for cover just yet, it’s the sort of news that we need to hear to remind MS that their present monopoly of the desktop is not guaranteed in perpetuity, even though it is getting on for 10 years duration.

Early reports indicate that the software (working title “Chandler”) will incorporate Jabber, an open-source instant messaging system, as well as an easy-to-use e-mail encryption system. Kapor intends that his Francisco-based Open Source Application Foundation (OSAF), which he founded last year, will eventually raise funds by licensing its code base to companies seeking to build commercial applications on top of the software, such as a version for larger companies. Don’t hold your breath just yet though, since the first version which will run on the Windows, Mac OS/X and Linux operating systems will be available by Q4 2002, with a first full release due 12 months later.

There is a certain irony and poignancy about Kapor’s position here, since Lotus did so much to put the companies that attempted to subvert the market share of Lotus 123 by producing functionally superior products at a lower price. Borland’s Quattro, Paperback Software’s VP Planner being examples of two businesses that took on Lotus and were buried by legal costs. And then to cap it all, after a dose of smugness at having trounced the competition in the courts, if not the products reviews, Lotus 123 was eventually all but exterminated by Microsoft Office in the marketplace and subsumed by IBM, who are well known for marketing PC software products with all the panache of an elephant performing the Lambada.

With the usual caution expressed by one who probably wants to see Bill Gates in the welfare line but is not willing to say so directly …just in case, Kapor explains: "It's not a business threat to Microsoft.  On the other hand it's an alternative to lots and lots of users. This project has a positive motivation--to provide people with more options and great free software. It's not motivated by the wish to do something that harms Microsoft."

Perish the thought, but I would suspect that 90% of Office users who gave the subject of the benefits of competition a moment’s thought would like to see Mitch give Office a good kicking and try and ensure that the desktop productivity software business showed a fraction of the innovation of those areas that are not being stifled by MS, such as the graphics software business. Read more at, and Kapor’s personal musings at where the last word goes to Kapor:

“If Chandler gets initial traction, then perhaps with another turn of the wheel it will grow up, much as Linux did over the course of quite a few years to become an enterprise-class product. So, in this sense, it's a potential long-term threat, just as Linux emerged as competition for Microsoft in the server market. If I were Microsoft, I'd be worried about open source in general, not about losing Outlook/Exchange market share any time soon. With or without OSAF, I believe all of the applications in Office will be commoditized with equivalent free versions. I can see it happening . It's not quite there yet but I bet it will be. I'm imagining there are teams of programs around the world working on this at this very moment. In a few years generic PC's will come with a free, competent office suite bundled. That will challenge Microsoft's hegemony in desktop applications.”