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Nine Questions for Mitch Kapor

by chromatic

Mitch Kapor heads the Open Source Applications Foundation, the group behind Chandler. His OSCON keynote will explore whether and how collaborative development can bring open source software to the desktop. Mitch kindly agreed to a short interview as a teaser for his talk at this July's OSCON 2003.

O'Reilly Network: The GNU project started from the ground up, and Linux distributions started from the installation forward. Chandler is a PIM, which fits right in with your history. How did you choose this as a starting point? Was it pragmatic, in that it's your area of interest, or was it practical--some upcoming seachange that will let you take over the desktop?

Mitch Kapor: The short answer is that:

  1. PIM's have become really important, especially email
  2. I could envision better tools than what I had to use personally
  3. I saw there were needs for small businesses to have a simple alternative for shared calendars and collaboration

There's more detailed info in my weblog, especially in Origins of the Open Source Applications Foundation and You're Making a What?.

ORN: Chandler uses a lot of open technologies and protocols, including RDF, LDAP, and Jabber. Are all of the right pieces are in place for your work now, or are you finding that you need to help develop new technology?

MK: We're trying to use existing technology and protocol wherever possible, which is most places. We are doing original work in building our repository because we haven't been able to find anything which meets out needs.

ORN: Your keynote will discuss "collaborative development methods" for desktop software. There have been a few companies in recent memory exploring the same avenue: Eazel, Ximian, the GNOME foundation, the Kompany. While the principles of collaboration have been refined over decades, how mature is the understanding of the problem?

MK: The social interactions of people are endlessly complex; our understandings are rudimentary.

ORN: From a desktop user's perspective, what's the appeal of open source software? Some of these are listed on your site under Canoga's End-User Release goals. What benefits do you expect to show and how many of them come from the collaborative development and how many come from your team's expertise and technology choices?

MK: I like to think of it as a synergistic combination of the vision and expertise of the team as informed by the best thinking of many interested parties: developers, end-users, and partners. The more open we have been, the more there has been for people to react to, and the more interesting and creative have been the reactions. We have altered our course on many occasions, to embrace ideas which came to us through future users of the product. The whole idea of making a version of Chandler for higher education started with a single email to me from Ira Fuchs of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports colleges and universities and has recently initiated an information technology program. It has blossomed into an active collaboration with a consortium of major universities.

ORN: What projects do you count as successes and why?

MK: Certainly Lotus 1-2-3 as a design and commercial success. Lotus Agenda as a niche product with a huge impact beyond the number of units sold. Lotus itself for its progressive corporate culture. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for being the first group to bring the issue of civil liberties and the Internet to the public awareness.

ORN: Looking at your goals, they remind me much of the Mozilla project; it's intended for early adopters now, it's intended as a framework and a platform for customization and future development, it's designed to be extensible, and it's intended to allow third parties (and yourselves) to make money off of packaging and extending. Is this a fair assessment? Are there any important differences?

MK: All of those comparisons are fair and speak to the platform aspect of the projects. We're also trying to define new end-user application functionality in the area of managing personal information, so we have an added level of ambition in that way. The team, with people like Andy Hertzfeld, also has a lot of experience in building innovative software, so the ambition level, while large, is not entirely foolish.

Read other Linux Interviews:

Rick Walker: The Joy of Live Looping

A Look Back at 10 Years of OSI

An Interview with Toby Segaran

Puffy's Marathon: What's New in OpenBSD 4.2

Digital Media Insider Podcast 19: Inside the New Media Expo

ORN: You say that "our understandings [of collaborative desktop software development] are rudimentary." Is there anyone leading the field now? Are there writers or thinkers or developers who've blazed the trail for you to follow, or do you see yourselves as having to break new ground?

MK: Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson are, for me, the important figures who first set out comprehensive visions about computer-mediated collaboration.

ORN: If you had the power to will any single piece of open source software into being to use with Chandler--application or library--what would it be? (I'd personally choose a refactoring browser for Perl that works with vim.) How about for your personal use?

MK: Do you mean what component, which, if it existed, would make creating Chandler much easier? Probably something which was insanely great at doing various kinds of textual parsing, analysis, and indexing.

ORN: It's early in OSAF's life right now, but what comes after Chandler? What will you have proven and what will you tackle next?

MK: Taking Chandler from its prenatal state through multiple releases and into maturity is at least a 5-7 year project, which will keep us very busy. In the latter years if there are opportunities to begin new work, I would be very interested in rethinking other productivity applications found in office suites.

chromatic manages Onyx Neon Press, an independent publisher.

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