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Inside Mitch Kapor's World

by Steve Holden
06/03/2004

Editor's Note: Steve Holden interviews Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and new open source advocate, after the recent PyCon about his life and career, the OSAF, Chandler, open source, and Python.

Steve Holden: Is Kapor a Hungarian name?

Mitch Kapor: No, my family is Russian, Georgian, via Ellis Island.

SH: You mentioned your early days in computing in your keynote this morning. How did you actually get sucked in to the subject?

MK: I actually built a tiny computer as a junior high school project.

SH: Using a 6502 processor?

MK: Oh no, this was before that, I was already in my 20s by the time the 6502 came out. This was all transistor flip-flops. It was a gated adder with a rotary telephone dial as the primary input device.

SH: So you were a real hardcore engineer back then?

MK: Well, I had a lot of help from my father with the soldering and so on, and he was very good at math and was fascinated with computers, and so I was fortunate enough to have a bunch of exposure going all the way back to high school -- this was in the 1960s. But things didn't really ignite for me until personal computers took off, and you could buy one and put it on your desk, take it apart, play with it, and see what it was made of, and so on.

SH: So, when you came to start Lotus, did you do so with the specific intention of developing 1-2-3, or was 1-2-3 an accident?

MK: From 1978 when I bought my Apple II, for the next four years I just threw myself into PCs, and did lots of things — I had a little consulting practice, I formed an Apple users group in the New England area which was, of course, the first one on the East Coast, and I started a tiny cottage software business doing a statistics and graphics package for the Apple II. I went to business school for a little while, and I did a number of other things.

The culmination of all of that was the decision to start a company, which became Lotus, to do a product, which became 1-2-3. By the time I reached that point it had been four years, and it felt like a lifetime, but really it was kind of evolutionary. I saw an opportunity based around the IBM PC, which had just been introduced and represented the next level in power, and I believed that the existing companies were not going to take full advantage of it.

SH: When you started the Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF), did you need a vehicle for an existing idea, or did the Foundation come before the idea for Chandler?


O'Reilly Open Source Convention -- July 26-30, 2004 Portland, OR.

Mitch Kapor will present A Developer's Tour of Chandler

Kapor reveals his vision for Chandler, a personal information manager focused on how people want to interact with their data, rather than on how computers like to store data. There will also be a Q&A Session with the OSAF Developer Panel. Here's your opportunity to get questions answered by Kapor and the OSAF developers.
Register now and save!

MK: OSAF came about as a provisional solution to a number of considerations revolving around, "What do I do next?" This is in 2001, so I had moved to California and spent some time at the tail-end of the boom — really the dot-com bust — being a venture capitalist. This was clearly not a good thing — I'd been a great "angel" investor, but professional venture capital was clearly not the right thing for me.

I was trying to figure out what to do next, I'd been accumulating ideas for productivity tools — software people could use every day, particularly to help organize their lives. I'd acutely felt the lack of a product that I really loved, but there was a tremendous lack of commercial opportunity to start software ventures around these ideas, given the industry's structure, and I did a lot of thinking about how things might be put together, learned a lot about open source, made a pilgrimage to go see Linus, and tried to educate myself.

The organizational design for OSAF came about as a result of thinking about how to create an organization that could make these products and bring them into the world and help start something in which they could thrive in the long term.

Open source really seemed like the right methodology, and then I had a whole decision-making process about for-profit v. nonprofit, and decided I wanted a nonprofit body for the core of the whole thing.

SH: Of course, nonprofit doesn't necessarily mean "non revenue-earning" or "non-funded," does it?

MK: Well, there's no such thing as "non-funded." Any organization gets some money, and the challenge is sustainability.

SH: OSAF was self-funded?

MK: Well, I was fortunate enough to be able to self-fund to start, but I had no intention of self-funding forever, and so I needed a model that would be sustainable.

SH: You aren't going to continue to fund the Foundation, then?

MK: The problem with that is that it doesn't create good conditions for accountability, long term.

SH: So, what do you anticipate will be your future sources of funding?

MK: We've already gotten a significant grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a university consortium. I think the whole sector of Foundations, potentially with government support, is promising -- more than promising, I think, it's substantial.

The dual-licensing model that's been used successfully by a number of open source projects such as MySQL and Sleepycat for their implementation of Berkeley DB is gaining a huge amount of currency and popularity. We identified that from the very outset as being promising.

SH: Effectively, giving platform support on an open source basis?

MK Well, the heart of it really is that you dual-license. There's a version that's free, possibly under the GPL, but the same code is also available under a commercial license for people who want to develop proprietary additions and distribute those and sell them.

SH: Without what are sometimes called the "viral" licensing conditions of some open source licenses?

MK: That's right. You can't make it available under the GPL, but you can write a commercial license to do that. Those licensees will pay money for such a license, while the GPL code is, of course, free, and those funds flow into the organization to support its core activities. That's why it has to be a nonprofit, because a nonprofit is required to take monies it receives and use them for the purposes for which it's chartered by the government. It can't be pocketed.

SH: Do you have any ideas for other projects for OSAF, or is Chandler enough to be dealing with right now?

MK: Chandler is MORE than enough; in fact, the main problem organizationally is to keep a resolute focus on doing an initial version that has enough to get people terribly excited, but not more than that. We have all these ideas about things we would love to do, and it would take us forever to do them all.

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