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Opening up OpenMail? As was originally reported in ComputerWorld, Hewlett-Packard has announced that it will cease development on its OpenMail product. Version 7.0, which became available on February 28, will be the last major release of this system.
This announcement may seem like just the death of yet another proprietary software product. But it matters. OpenMail is the only "enterprise ready," Exchange-compatible mail server product which is available on Linux. Its demise leaves an important corporate function with no Linux-based solution; all that's left is windows-based, proprietary systems - and not very many of those. For the moment, this looks like a setback for the World Domination program.
There is an important lesson here, however, for the users of proprietary software. Companies that have deployed OpenMail have invested heavily in it. But, with proprietary systems, you never really know if it will be there tomorrow. OpenMail is going away, and there is nothing its users can do about it. It can not be maintained - even by those willing to pay for that maintenance. If a proprietary system's owner so wills, the software simply vanishes.
It is worth pointing out that HP is paying more than the usual amount of attention to its users' interests in this case. The announcement went out with OpenMail 7.0, rather than after customers had paid for upgrades. And HP will be providing bug fixes and other support for the next five years, so there is plenty of time to find a replacement. HP is to be commended for being clear about its plans, rather than just quietly ramping down development.
One of the first thoughts that comes to mind, of course, is that HP should release OpenMail under an open source license. HP, after all, has taken some criticism at times for seemingly being more interested in talking about free software than actually supporting it. Here is, it seems, HP's chance to bolser its open source image while simultaneously doing the free software world a real favor.
Life, of course, is not so simple. Bruce Perens has sent around a note on the future of OpenMail and the possibility of releasing it as open source. Most of the usual problems apply. For example, HP does not own all of the code that is in OpenMail, so the company will have to go through, track down all of the various licenses it owns, and figure out how they impact an open source release. Over twelve years, a large system can accumulate quite a few of these licenses. Once they have been found, it will be necessary to "sanitize" the code, removing everything that can not be released. That is a big job, and the resulting system is likely to function poorly, if at all.
Then, of course, it's not just a simple matter of tossing the code onto an FTP site and hoping for the best. There needs to be CVS archives, project management, documentation, web pages, etc. And getting people interested in the code could be a challenge. After twelve years, one can assume that this system has grown complex and full of cruft. It may not be for the faint of heart.
The end result is that releasing OpenMail as free software would not be a cost-free action for HP - it could, in fact, be quite expensive.
Perhaps the best case scenario, in the end, might be for some other company to take on the open-sourcing of OpenMail. Even in these (relatively) hard times, it seems like it should be possible to build a business on this product, much in the same way that NuSphere and Great Bridge are hitching their wagons to open source database systems. A small business could perhaps be built around nicely-packaged OpenMail box sets, but OpenMail seems like a system that would support a large market in design and support services. Companies that depend on OpenMail would probably be willing to pay for further development and support services; they could redirect the funds currently going into license fees.
What's needed is a company that can build this business. Sendmail, Inc. seems like it would be a natural for this line of work; OpenMail already uses sendmail, and would be a strong weapon in Sendmail's quest to make money from enterprise services. Red Hat, too, could perhaps benefit from the package. And VA Linux, of course, has made a major goal of replacing its dotcom customers, who have not been the most reliable lately, with blue-chip enterprise companies. If HP can not find the resources to free OpenMail, certainly one of these other companies should be able to step in and help out? Let's make HP come up with a different excuse for holding onto the source.
(See also: The OpenMail Showdown: Is Bruce Perens Just a Pretty Face? by Don Marti for a more cynical look at the situation).
HP gets into Linux-based stereo gear? Since OpenMail is no longer an appropriate fit with HP's strategy....what is? For one clue, see this press release describing a new partnership with RealNetworks. The details are sparse, to say the least, but the picture that emerges is that the two are working on a Linux-based box which would plug into a living-room stereo system and make music available from the Internet. The real set of products and services are due to come out later this year.
One could be forgiven for wondering if the companies aren't targeting the Napster customer base. A paid service providing a "universal juke box" functionality could well be popular, especially if it is easy to use (without a user-visible computer) and lacks legal challenges. In that context, a quote from this TechWeb article is interesting:
[HP VP John] Spofford said a Web-connected home-entertainment device is a logical step for HP, whose CD-Writer rewritable drive, which has sold 10 million units, lets consumers make media from the Internet and PCs accessible on other devices.
A network-based music device which avoids the wrath of the music industry is unlikely to provide a straightforward connection to one of those CD writers. We are waiting to see how they resolve that problem.
The other question, of course, is that of just how open this box will be. A Linux-based system designed for audio applications would be a fun toy to play with. We can only hope that HP will provide an open interface to this box so that others can write their own applications for it. Somebody will figure out a way in regardless; why not make it easy and let a wider set of applications drive sales for the device? Bruce Perens said two years ago:
Open Source has de-emphasized the importance of the freedoms involved in Free Software. It's time for us to fix that. We must make it clear to the world that those freedoms are still important, and that software such as Linux would not be around without them.
Perhaps Bruce, in his high-profile HP role, could help to make this new product line support freedom?
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March 8, 2001