RIP Mitch Kapor’s Chandler

Update: I have posted some of my additional thoughts and critiques 😉 in my most recent post: “Mitch Kapor’s Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Yesterday I received an email that I have been anticipating would arrive at any time. The Open Source Application Foundation, creators of the collaborative PIM Chandler, announced that Mitch Kapor, its primary financial benefactor, is resigning and will be withdrawing funding at the end of 2008. The OSAF staff will immediately be reduced from 27 people to 10, and Katie Capps Parlante, currently the head of engineering, will be leading the project, with the hope of raising money to continue after Kapor’s funding ends.

Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and creator of Lotus 1-2-3, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and former chairman of the Mozilla Foundation, started the Chandler project in 2001 with the hope of building an open source alternative to Outlook and Exchange. However six years later, Chandler has still has not reached 1.0 status. It does appear though that Kapor has been inactive, at least regarding product design and features for some time. In September 2007 they did release a 0.7 “preview” version of the product, though in my view, it is still not yet comfortably usable.

As someone who has spent many years developing PIM software, I have a passion for the category and have followed the Chandler project closely. I have been a member of the Chandler design mailing list for several years and have been rooting for them to succeed. But I recently came to the opinion that failure was inevitable.

From my perspective, Chandler was a rudderless ship. I tried to make suggestions which, though small, I felt could greatly reduce the complexity of the product. But their design process seemed to be insular and, honestly, broken. Even when I suggested they do some user testing, I was told by one engineer that he did not believe in the value of such testing.

The user interface design lead seemed intent on defending design decisions that it appeared few inside or outside the company agreed with, and that were in conflict with basic well understood user experience design theory. Worse yet, and quite amazingly, even as of yesterday on the mailing list, they are still debating who the target market for Chandler is.

Beyond poor design decisions and a seven year old and still incomplete development process, Chandler was hurt by a shift from desktop applications to web applications. Competitively, a slew of applications such as iCal, Google Calendar, and dozens of others also beat Chandler to the punch. And while Chandler does now have a web application companion called Cosmo, it is an entirely different code base from the desktop app, with a similar but different user interface all of which obviously ads substantially to the cost of maintenance and the complexity of the system.

The failure of Chandler is sad. But indeed after six years with no viable product or even strategy, it is finally time to die.