Desperately Seeking Chandler


For most, the name “Chandler” probably conjures up images of mystery writers, but in the context of open source it also refers to an extraordinary project which, after seven years of development, has finally shipped version 1.0:

We are pleased to announce the release of Chandler 1.0, a “Note-to-Self Organizer” designed for personal and small-group task management and calendaring.
Chandler consists of a desktop application and Chandler Hub, a free sharing service and web application. You can also download and run your own Chandler Server.

Chandler began life as a Personal Information Manager (PIM), much in the vein of Lotus Agenda. That's not so surprising, since the original driving force behind Chandler was none other than Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus.

One of Mitch’s passions has been designing software applications that people can use in everyday life - tools that enhance the organization and retrieval of important information. Beginning almost two decades ago, he was instrumental in the design of a variety of landmark personal and business productivity tools including the first programmable spreadsheet (Lotus 1-2-3), a new kind of database optimized for entering small items of information in a free-form manner and adding organizational categories on-the-fly (Lotus Agenda), and a blindingly fast retrieval tool that indexed everything on the hard drive (On Location).

Through his several decades of work as entrepreneur, CEO, angel investor, and venture capitalist, Mitch retained his passion for making useful software, and accumulated a major backlog of innovative ideas for new software products.

But the development and adoption of innovative solutions in important areas of software has become quite difficult. One such area is that of desktop productivity applications, an area which encompasses a number of Mitch's most interesting ideas. Development costs are high, distribution channels are limited, and barriers to entry are significant. The chance is small that the traditional venture-capital-backed model of software development will fill this need.

This is one of the many aspects that makes Chandler a fascinating case-study in open source code creation. Unlike practically all other projects, it was set up by someone wealthy enough to finance it for some years, and with a very definite, but *abstract*, idea of what he wanted. This contrasts with the “traditional” way in which free software starts from a practical need – the famous “itch” that is scratched – and grows through the natural accretion of a motley crew of like-minded hackers. Because of this somewhat “unnatural” genesis, it is perhaps no surprise that the process has been somewhat bumpy.

First, Chandler has proceeded much more slowly than expected. Along the way, it changed its licence (from GPL to Apache), parted company with Kapor, had a book written about its trials and tribulations, and turned into the rather nebulous “Note-to-Self Organizer”. Despite these difficulties, Chandler is notable for the fact that it is fully cross-platform, and represents an interesting early attempt to create an open source desktop app.

Ultimately, though, the importance of Chandler may lie rather in the Open Software Applications Foundation (OSAF) under whose aegis it was created. Even though Chandler may be the sole direct creation of the OSAF, it has been active in the open source world in other ways. As Kapor wrote in his blog:

OSAF also served as the fiscal sponsor for the Mozilla Foundation between its spinout from AOL/Netscape and when it secured its own tax-exempt non-profit status. In that respect, it played a small but important role in the great Firefox success story.

As I've noted before, Mozilla is rapidly turning into the powerhouse that drives much of the most important activity in the open source world. Today, it is financially independent thanks to the extremely lucrative deal with Google for search referrals. But initially, Mozilla was without this lifeline; indeed, the whole project looked pretty hopeless. Kapor's critical early support through the OSAF emerges as one of the most far-sighted and important in the history of free software. Against this fact, the success or otherwise of Chandler is but a footnote.

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