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From Blue Sky to Nuts and Bolts

As Chandler’s lead designer, Kapor has fun dreaming up new things. But he’s also the boss. “You can’t coordinate a project of this scope in an ad hoc structure,” he says. In one of the programming team’s regular Thursday morning meetings, Kapor lays down the law. “We should aspire to a rare and unprecedented level of honesty” about schedule slips and bugs in code, he tells the team. Kapor’s voice is slightly hoarse, a vestige of his pre-software days as a DJ, and he has a balky back, so he’s often more comfortable in meetings when he stands. He commiserates with the staff about the difficulty of meeting targets, saying “things never take shorter, they always take longer.We’re not going to change human nature here. But let’s have a reality-based schedule, if we can bring ourselves to do it. We’re not VC-backed, so we have more of an opportunity to do things differently.”

The chance to work with Kapor on a groundbreaking product has attracted exceptional software people. Besides Montulli, a number of other former Netscapers are involved. John Anderson, who has to figure out how to build what Kapor dreams up, is one of Silicon Valley’s best contract programmers. E-mail architect Kaitlin Duck Sherwood has spent most of her life around computer messaging: her parents worked on PLATO, a seminal 1970s communications project at the University of Illinois. Hertzfeld seems to speak for them all when he says, “The purpose of coming in to work every day is to improve life for the user.”

But that won’t be easy. Though Kapor has put serious resources behind the foundation, Chandler is by no means a sure bet. The project has moved slowly since its kickoff in the summer of 2001, with more vision than code to its credit so far. Critics say Kapor is better at concepts than execution, noting the failure of several of his products after 1-2-3, including Agenda. And Kapor’s attempt to reorganize functions like e-mail, calendaring, and contact management has some labeling Chandler an “Outlook killer” and questioning the wisdom of taking on Microsoft. Kapor, however, says it would be “psychotically suicidal” to challenge Microsoft commercially, and he thinks it’s far fetched to talk about dislodging Outlook from its market dominance anytime soon. Still, since he does expect Chandler to have mass appeal, he says if that forces Microsoft to rethink its approach to applications, great.

Kapor says the skeptics are also missing the point when assessing the group’s progress. After all, it was only in August, once the idea of contexts coalesced, that Kapor declared the end of the “blue sky” phase of the project, directing programmers away from developing models and demos to actually writing code for the program’s major pieces. Kapor now believes that late 2004 is a realistic ship date for the first full version of Chandler.

And while some doubt, too, that open-source efforts can produce programs that rival commercial software, the spread of products like Linux suggests otherwise. Indeed, Douglass Wilson, chief technology officer for Lotus (now a division of IBM), says that open-source methods can build very high-quality software “by virtue of having lots of eyes.” He says the key is getting the right eyes. “What makes open source go is the community. If a technology spawns a community of interestthen you have both a very powerful creative force and a market force.”

It’s too early to say whether Chandler will develop such a community. Besides the technical challenges and the user issues, it’s hard to picture exactly what Chandler will look like, and until its basic framework exists, developers outside the foundation’s San Francisco office can’t write code for it.

So will Chandler succeed? Kapor pauses. “Uh, uhhh, yeah.” And suddenly Kapor the open-source advocate morphs into Kapor the CEO, and asserts, “It’s like any other startup. When you’re doing something new and different, there are always risks. But I’m increasingly confident that it’s going to work.” He chuckles. “But maybe you caught me on a good day.”

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