A better desktop outlook

GNU/Linux needs an alternative to Outlook if it is to be a serious desktop contender.

GNU/Linux needs an alternative to Outlook if it is to be a serious desktop contender.

Last week I wrote about moves to make GNU/Linux a viable desktop. A key element of this was the availability of Star Office/ OpenOffice.org. One non-obvious feature of the latter is that it runs on both the GNU/Linux and Windows platforms (with work now underway on a version for Apple's MacOS X).

This is important because it means that companies can convert desktops gradually. For example, they might first start by running Star Office/ Open Office under Windows, and then later introduce GNU/Linux machines with the same software. Since end-users spend most of their time in office applications, the effort of switching will be reduced considerably.

One reason why GNU/ Linux is becoming a possible solution for the desktop is that other key end-user applications are also available across several platforms. For example Mozilla exists in versions for not just Windows, GNU/ Linux and MacOS X, but several other more exotic (and frankly marginal) flavours.

Developers, too, are beginning to enjoy this advantage. The Eclipse project supports Windows, GNU/Linux and MacOS X and several Unix variants. Although manifestly still in its early stages, Eclipse is progressing: recent projects that have been added include a Cobol IDE.

Against this background it is worth asking what is still missing from the open source desktop, and the answer is not hard to find. For alongside Web browsing, one of the most important applications is e-mail.

Although Mozilla offers a full e-mail client, this cannot be installed on its own. In any case, the e-mail client in Mozilla is not intended to be a complete replacement for Microsoft's Outlook program, which is a full personal information manager.

Indeed, it could be argued that for all its manifold faults - not least the fact that it is probably the biggest source of corporate virus infections - Microsoft Outlook has grown into one of the strongest reasons for adopting and sticking with the Windows platform. For Outlook is where people store their most personal data - e-mail messages, contacts, tasks and appointments. As a result, Outlook may well prove to be the last proprietary program to be pried from the fingers of end-users.

Against this background a free software replacement for Outlook is clearly desperately needed if the open source desktop is ever to be a serious contender. But given Outlook's entrenched position, going up against the might of Microsoft in this area might seem even more quixotic than elsewhere.

Enter Mitch Kapor. For those who go a long way back in the computing world, this is a name with a certain resonance. For it was Kapor who founded Lotus in 1982 and was one of the people behind Lotus 1-2-3.

After selling Lotus to IBM, Kapor became better-known for his work with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which he set up in 1990.

And now he's back, with something called the Open Software Applications Foundation, and a mission "to create and gain wide adoption for software applications of uncompromising quality using open source methods". More particularly, he wants to create precisely the Outlook replacement that the open desktop needs. There are a few reasons why he might just succeed.

First, his new personal information manager will run on Windows, GNU/Linux, and Macintosh.

Second, it has people of the calibre of Andy Hertzfield working with him.
And finally - and most importantly - Kapor will be bankrolling the project personally to the tune of $5m (£3m).

Although this project has barely begun, it will definitely be one to watch in the coming years. The best place to do so is probably Kapor's own blog.

Read more on Operating systems software