HP could become an open-source hero

Hewlett-Packard Co. has decided to stop development on its HP OpenMail server after it releases Version 7.0, although HP says it will continue to support customers of versions 6 and 7 for the next five years. No doubt HP hopes its customers will perceive that this business decision was driven by the fact that the OpenMail division has not been profitable. To complicate the issue, HP hasn't been able to find a satisfactory buyer for the division.

I smell a rat. At LinuxWorld Expo in August 1999, I discovered that HP OpenMail was a better exchange than Microsoft Exchange. The overwhelming potential for OpenMail was so obvious that I pressed an HP representative as to why HP did not actively market OpenMail as a drop-in replacement for Exchange.

His answer earned HP the "bury the gold" award. As I said then, HP knew it was sitting on a potential gold mine but was afraid to dig. HP OpenMail runs on a variety of platforms, including Linux. OpenMail is faster, more scalable, more stable, less expensive, and performs calendar synchronization tasks more intelligently than Exchange. But HP refused to market OpenMail as an Exchange replacement because it was more interested in protecting its relationship with Microsoft.

That's why I smell a rat, even when it comes to HP's diligence in looking for a buyer for the division. I'm guessing that, until now, HP had figured it could get by with a product that threatened Microsoft Exchange as long as HP kept it largely invisible. But HP would risk damaging its relationship with Microsoft even more if it sold the OpenMail division to a company that might market the product properly.

Now the open-source community is pressuring HP to release the source code for OpenMail. The open-source community views Exchange as a serious threat to open-source operating systems because Exchange is an effective part of Microsoft's strategy to lock customers into all-Microsoft server environments. In short, a promising future for OpenMail is a dead end for Exchange.

To be fair, Bruce Perens of HP offered some credible arguments as to why it might be difficult for HP to provide the OpenMail source code. His explanation is credible because it is typical for closed-source products: Some of the code in OpenMail is licensed from other companies, leading to legal problems for HP should they decide to release the source code.

But frankly, I don't think it matters what the legal issues are. Look at the mentality of the company we're dealing with. HP created an Exchange-killer and then hid it under a bushel to protect its relationship with Microsoft. Which is more dangerous to Microsoft: a pitifully marketed HP OpenMail, or a free, open-source version of OpenMail?

If you're having trouble deciding, look at netcraft.co.uk/survey/ to see a chart of the market share of the open-source Apache Web server versus commercial servers such as Microsoft's. Or just take my word for it: The worst possible damage HP can do to Exchange, and thus to HP's relationship with Microsoft, is to release the code for OpenMail to the open-source community. If Apache can trounce IIS, which comes "free" with Windows, imagine what a free, open-source drop-in replacement for Exchange, such as OpenMail, would do to Exchange's market share.

HP is a gutless company. If OpenMail weren't so good, I'd say good riddance to it.

Nicholas Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at nicholas@petreley.com.

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