Forcing Open Windows

Can anyone compete with Microsoft in the world of software applications? For years now, Bill Gates & Co. have had clear sailing: the Windows operating-system monopoly has helped make their key products--like Word and Outlook--into unbeatable juggernauts. Meanwhile, innovation in those areas proceeds only at the pace that Microsoft deems appropriate.

The Open Source Applications Foundation has a different idea: to promote free software and innovation by creating cool new applications on a bare-bones budget. The not-for-profit OSAF was initially funded with $5 million from former Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitch Kapor. For Kapor, this is a fascinating departure. Twenty years ago he introduced one of the first killer apps of the PC age, the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet; it was unabashedly for-profit and was closed-source, a la Microsoft.

But Kapor always had his heart in the counterculture, and after leaving his company he cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberrights organization. Though he has seen success as an investor, he feels strongly about the open-source movement, which posits that in the age of complex software many people working for nothing can duplicate or even exceed the efforts of the rake-in-the-bucks gang. And because the source code is available to all, anyone can improve the product. The continued success of the Linux-powered operating system and Apache Web servers shows that open source is no hippie-dippy pipe dream, but a serious challenge to the establishment.

Sometime next year the OSAF will begin testing its first product, a personal-information manager that directly takes on Microsoft's Outlook. Named after the famous mystery novelist, Chandler will run on Mac, Windows and Linux, be loaded with clever features and allow users to share information with others on things like calendar entries. And, of course, it will be free. Kapor has signed up an all-star team, including Lou Montulli (an original coder of the Netscape Navigator browser) and programming legend Andy Hertzfeld, a key player on the original Macintosh team. Also participating: thousands of volunteers who believe in the barn-raising spirit of the open-source movement.

Ultimately, Kapor hopes the project will be self-supporting, with money coming from corporate sponsorships, foundations and licensing fees. (One potential donor: the university community. A number of chief information officers in academia are already mulling over whether to chip in funds.)

For the immediate future, Kapor thinks that Chandler will be simply another alternative in the shadow of the giant. But long term, the OSAF sees a sea change in the industry itself. "If Chandler works, I can't see why we couldn't do a word processor or a spreadsheet," says Kapor. After all, he predicts, "in 10 years Office and Windows will be commodities." Meaning that the Open Source Applications Foundation, or anyone else, will be able to plug its products--including an operating system--into your computing world. Microsoft's will cost money. The others will be free. If Kapor has his way, it's a long goodbye for Microsoft's dominance.