Can an open-source software effort fill the gap that Microsoft has left in the low-end collaboration product space? The Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF) hopes to do just that with its plan to create an "interpersonal information manager" that not only manages email but also lets users share appointments, contacts, and tasks, without requiring a server.
OSAF is largely the brainchild of computer-industry entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus, then helped design the Lotus Agenda personal information manager (PIM) in the late 1980s. Other heavy-hitters on the OSAF team include Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original Macintosh designers, and Tim O'Reilly, founder and president of publisher O'Reilly & Associates.
The OSAF product, code-named Chandler, targets individual users and organizations with fewer than 100 people. Kapor's group had been working on Chandler for nearly a year before making a public announcement last month. The group is committed to Internet standards such as iCalendar and vCard, support for multiple platforms, and a product that users will be able to script and developers will be able to extend.
The Chandler feature summary ( http://www.osafoundation.org/feature_summary.htm )includes many basics familiar to Outlook users. The summary also contains several items that have been on Outlook users' wish lists for a long time: full-text indexing, automatic spam filtering, and full replication of data on home and work computers.
The OSAF Web site says that the nonprofit foundation has funding for a first release. The site provides design and development mailing lists to which you can subscribe to become involved with Chandler. Right now, OSAF is working out the mechanics of managing Chandler as an open-source development project with many contributors.
Under the hood, Chandler will use a variety of technologies, taking advantage of many programs already available in the open-source community. The wxWindows toolkit will let programmers create user interfaces for Windows, Mac, and Linux without writing a different application for each platform. Using the Zope Object Database (ZODB), Chandler will gain an object-oriented (OO) database that supports transaction processing, concurrent access to data, conflict resolution, and file and database back ends for data storage. Jabber will play a dual role as both an Instant Messaging (IM) platform and a way to share information through structured messages when both clients are online. The Resource Description Framework (RDF) will provide a standard way to describe the kind of data that users might exchange and which might not be structured the same for each user. The HTML layout engine and HTML text editor probably will come from the Mozilla cross-platform browser. Power users and developers will use the Python language to extend Chandler's basic features. Python will also be the tool for writing much of the actual Chandler code.
Outlook 2002 users are without a mechanism for peer-to-peer (P2P) data sharing. Microsoft Office XP lacks the Net Folders feature that lets Outlook 2000 and Outlook 98 users share data by stuffing it into special email messages. This development caught some small businesses by surprise when they bought new computers with Office XP pre-installed and found that Outlook 2002 users couldn't share with Outlook 2000 and Outlook 98 users. Although a variety of third-party tools add some level of sharing without a full-blown Exchange Server, none of them seems to have really caught on with Outlook users. No solution is easy enough, for example, for a family to use to share their individual calendars.
As I reported in "Outlook 11 Improves Connectivity, Adds Features," October 15, 2002, the next version of Outlook won't really change that situation. The only new collaboration features planned for Outlook 11 all depend on SharePoint Team Services, a browser-based application that in turn depends on a Web server and central database. From what Microsoft has shown so far, collaboration using Outlook 11 and SharePoint Team Services will be more complex and less functional than the P2P solution that OSAF hopes to deliver with Chandler.
Kapor, in his Weblog on the OSAF Web site, denies that OSAF is trying to beat Microsoft with an "Outlook killer" (in the words of a Slashdot article about Chandler). However, Outlook's lack of P2P sharing clearly opens the door to some other email or information manager to deliver a collaboration product to small businesses and individual users.