Computer software pioneer's new venture sells ideas,including equal access to a nationwide data network


April 13, 1992|By Josh Hyatt | Josh Hyatt,Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE, MASS — CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-- Mitch Kapor is back at Lotus Development Corp.

No -- he hasn't reclaimed the helm of the $800 million software company he founded in 1982. But he has returned to similar emotional turf.

"This is Lotus," Mr. Kapor declared, sitting in his office at the Electronic Frontier Foundation Inc. (EFF), his Macintosh computer whirring and beeping behind him. "This is like the early days of a high-tech start-up."

To an outsider -- maybe even to insiders -- the resemblance is not exactly glaring. For instance, while Lotus grew big selling a pioneering spreadsheet, Lotus 1-2-3, EFF is a non-profit foundation. All it sells is ideas: Mr. Kapor's latest one being that the creation of a public electronic data network is inevitable, and that it should be as democratic as possible.

In bearing his message, Mr. Kapor said he has regained the sense of purpose he had back in the "fun days" of Lotus.

"I love the idea that I can make a difference," he said.

Once a general in the personal computer revolution, Mr. Kapor, 41, has recast himself as a crusader on behalf of equal access to a nationwide data network that he said is "in very embryonic form."

Concerns about who will build such a network, and who will control what gets disseminated over it, are "huge questions facing us," Mr. Kapor said. Left in the hands of self-interested conglomerates and multinational corporations, the answers threaten to divide the nation into classes of information-rich and information-poor, he warned.

Armed with vision, time and credibility -- not to mention money -- to spare, Mr. Kapor said he was determined to do his best to prevent that from happening. "Our lives are increasingly going to be lived in cyberspace," he said. "Laws will be passed, and if we're not there, they will probably be something we won't like."

For the less celestially seasoned, Mr. Kapor defines cyberspace as the place that people inhabit when they are on the phone or communicating through a computer network.

He contends that without some kind of advocacy the new network could follow the model of cable television, which he describes as "a lost opportunity, offering more of the same junk. The individual or small guy had no voice."

The phone companies, cable systems and newspaper publishers could turn this new medium into "another vast wasteland," he said.

Cyberspace invader is not the first role Mr. Kapor has taken since leaving Cambridge-based Lotus in 1986, when it had annual sales of about $200 million. "I'm not a big-organization kind of guy," he said of his departure. "I'm unmotivated by wielding large amounts of power, in the corporate sense."

For three years, he was president of On Technology Inc., which he founded. No more. "As chairman, I had to fire myself," he said. "My heart was no longer in it."

After handing over the operational reins, Mr. Kapor focused on various philanthropic activities, touting artificial intelligence and raising money for such projects as the Computer Museum in Boston.

Then in 1990, a writer named John Perry Barlow came to interview him for a computer magazine. "I knew we were kindred spirits," Mr. Kapor recalled.

After all, Mr. Barlow is a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and Mr. Kapor used to be a disc jockey. "I played their music," he admitted, "but I'm not a Deadhead."

Mr. Kapor and Mr. Barlow were concerned about protecting the civil liberties of computer users, and they decided to form a group that would speak up. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., was an early adherent, as was John Gilmore, an early employee of Sun Microsystems Inc.

While EFF has grown to about 1,000 members, Mr. Kapor still supplies about one-third of the funding. "The rights of users was just a skirmish," he said. "Computer-based communications is a new medium that will be as important as print was in the 14th century. There is a larger transformation going on."

But when Mr. Kapor talks about the National Public Network achieved through upgrading the phone network, he is not spinning a futuristic tale. "This is going to happen," he said and warned that the nation needs to develop policies and rules that ensure diversity and preserve competition.

Since the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in 1982, jurisdiction over the regional Bell operating companies has rested in the hands of U.S. District Court Judge Harold Greene. Under the agreement that broke up Ma Bell, the so-called Baby Bells were prohibited from entering certain businesses, among them information services.

Regional phone companies have lobbied hard to get that ban, and others, lifted. Last October, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that lifted the restriction against providing information services. That development was none too pleasing to such groups as the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the National Cable Television Association.

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