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Rumor Mill: Wrestling with the lizard

Mitchell Baker has fallen out of the good graces of her employer--AOL Time Warner's Netscape--but Mozilla plans to keep her on as its chief, with or without AOL's approval or paychecks.

We at the Rumor Mill were gratified to have been listed in the first posthumous edition of the Industry Standard's Media Grok column. Soldiering on bravely past the threshold of death, the Grok should be an example to us all. May we all so gracefully accept that inevitable moment when we become forgotten, but not gone.

Another profile in never-say-die courage this week is recently laid-off Netscape employee Mitchell Baker, the Mozilla.org leader who is laughing in the face of Netscape's pink slip-clad grim reaper and maintaining her position at the open-source group.

Netscape parent AOL Time Warner last week said it had laid off Baker as part of its reorganization. Skinsiders call that a white lie.

"Mitchell was fired," said one Skinformant in the know.

But Mozilla plans to keep Baker on as its chief, with or without AOL's approval or paychecks. As of this writing, Baker's still listed at the head of Mozilla's org chart.

Leadership positions at Mozilla, though it is funded by Netscape, are filled by employees of other companies as well, including Red Hat and others.

"It's a distributed organization," said one Skinformant. "Mitchell's maintaining her position at Mozilla, and there's no implication that she's off staff because of her position at one or another company."

Baker did not respond to interview requests but did post an acknowledgment of her departure from AOL. In it she wrote, "I remain committed to the Mozilla project and to contributing in whatever ways I can."

Baker's departure from Netscape sheds rare light on that strangest of bedfellowships--the relationship between an open-source organization and its corporate sponsor.

It's easy to forget, four years into Mozilla's life, what a weird experiment it was. Sure, plenty of big companies have embraced open source and pay their engineers to work on projects such as Linux and Apache. But those technologies grew organically from the fertile soil of the Internet.

Netscape's bold gambit, widely imitated since, was to transplant a profit-oriented, proprietary technology into the world of open source and hope it would grow.

A tricky part of that shift has involved paying Netscape employees to work full-time on the Mozilla project, introducing classic conflicts between serving God (the open-source project) and Mammon (your employer) while keeping the code clean and the press quiet.

"It would be natural always to have tension between an open-source organization and a commercial company," said Eid Eid, CEO of Mozilla partner OEone in Quebec. "We knew when (AOL's acquisition of Netscape) happened that there was a lot of rumbling inside Netscape, lots of Netscape employees who were upset because there was a cultural shock. Our guess is that that culture shock is still going on."

Netscape and Mozilla defenders are looking on the bright side, pointing to recent successes such as the use of Mozilla technology by ActiveState (whose "Komodo" trademark wars with AOL we detailed last week) and OEone as an application framework for their software.

But Mozilla 1.0 is behaving like a mirage, ever at the horizon, as the organization completes 40 months of work without completing a final, first-generation build.

In November, Baker projected that the browser would be available in the second quarter of this year. Now Skinsiders say Mozilla 1.0 won't see the light of day until year's end or possibly the first quarter of 2002.

Mozilla's lateness could hardly have endeared Baker to her superiors at AOL, Skinsiders note.

Sources said Baker had fallen out of Netscape's good graces in what amounted to a power struggle between Netscape executives and Mozilla engineers over the direction of user-interface development, the pace of development, and the mission of Mozilla as a whole.

"Mitchell defended Mozilla and was trying to find a way to forge a consensus," said one of our Skinformants. "She was judged as being a source of trouble in a kind of us-vs.-them scenario. I think that led to her being fired."

Netscape, meanwhile, stuck to its layoff story.

"This was part of the overall restructuring and is not reflective of any sort of policy change at Netscape with regard to Mozilla," said Netscape representative Catherine Corre. "Netscape is fully supportive of the current Mozilla organization, projects and philosophy."

Corre said Baker's responsibilities at Netscape had not been reassigned and that the Mozilla organization was crafting its own response to Baker's removal.

"The plan is for the Mozilla.org staff to establish a new leadership plan," Corre said. "It's premature to talk about what's going to happen."

New Ballmer video hits the Net
While Mozilla and AOL consume themselves with power struggles and strife, its adversaries in Redmond, Wash., are busy advancing their own interests.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is gaining increasing celebrity in his new performance-art career, with one fan stepping in to provide a remixed version of a pair of unauthorized videos recently released on the Net. Meanwhile, Chief Lightbulb Technician Bill Gates is counting the dollars raised by Michael Moore's new charitable campaign on his behalf. Every week I think my career is taking off, but here I am once again, hat in hand, begging for your rumors.