Phoenix rises from Mozilla's ashes

Three months after Apple Computer bypassed it for a smaller, faster Web browser, Mozilla.org refocuses its coding efforts on a smaller, faster version of its own product.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
Three months after Apple Computer bypassed it for a smaller, faster Web browser, Mozilla.org has refocused its coding efforts on a smaller, faster version of its own product.

In a new plan released Wednesday, AOL Time Warner's open-source browser development group Mozilla.org said the next version of its product would be based on its Phoenix version, which it introduced in September 2002.

Under the new plan, Mozilla will abandon its XPFE toolkit for creating the browser's user interface. Instead, the main Mozilla code will come from the Phoenix project, a stripped-down version of Mozilla written with Extensible User Interface Language (XUL). XUL, introduced four years ago by Netscape Communications and Mozilla engineers, renders the browser with standard Web technologies, rather than platform-specific computer coding languages.

The idea behind the switch is to slim down the main Mozilla code, which critics and participants alike have judged to be too big and too slow. Under the new plan, the basic code will come with fewer bells and whistles, but will include a way of adding on features as needed.

"Phoenix is simply smaller, faster and better--especially better, not because it has every conflicting feature wanted by each segment of the Mozilla community, but because it has a strong 'add-on' extension mechanism," reads the new plan. "We recognize that different users need many different features; such demand is legitimate on its face. Attempting to 'hardwire' all these features to the integrated application suite is not legitimate; it's neither technically nor socially scaleable."

Mozilla's weight problem has been a source of embarrassment for the project for some time. When the project launched five years ago, its goal was to create a core browsing engine that was small and fast. This January, Apple opted for the KHTML browser engine--the heart of the open-source K Desktop Environment's (KDE) Konquerer browser--citing its smallness in contrast to the open-source competition.

In response to that snub, one Mozilla staff member acknowledged that "Gecko missed its 'small-and-lean' target by an area code, and we've been slogging back toward the goal, dragging our profilers and benchmarks behind us, for years."

Meanwhile, projects inside and outside the open-source group have proliferated to slim down Mozilla, including Galleon, Epiphany and Camino (formerly Chimera).

In addition to adopting Phoenix as its main code base, Mozilla plans to adopt the Phoenix mail client, Minotaur, using a new Phoenix toolkit. The new mail client is code-named Thunderbird.

Phoenix is due for a name change of its own, according to Mozilla. Citing unspecified legal problems with "Phoenix," the group said a new name had been chosen and would be announced once legal details were ironed out.

According to the plan, Mozilla will not immediately abandon work on the old code base. But the authors said a swift demise for the old application was likely once the group's version 1.4 release came out and requested that companies using the old code consult with the open-source group about their plans.

One Mozilla user applauded the group's move and wondered what it would mean for Netscape's branded version of the browser.

"Mozilla has become stable but bloated," said Matt Croydon, an undergraduate in computer science at the University of Maryland. "Users wanted something that was extremely fast, extremely lightweight and stable. I'm glad to see that the Mozilla team is embracing the trend of lightweight and agile browsers. Mozilla is much better off embracing the trend rather than trying to compete with it. It will be interesting to see how this will affect the AOL/Netscape browser, as it builds in more features (bloat) than a default Mozilla install."

But one Web developer sounded a note of caution.

"I'm sure there are some concerns about leaving XPFE in the dust, and the transition might be nontrivial," said Alex Russell, project lead for netWindows.org. "I think we'll have to wait and see how other projects that are using the Mozilla code base react before we can get a real feel for how the new direction will play with their most important constituency: their developers."

Mozilla staffers were not immediately available for comment.