With the alpha, which is posted on Mozilla's Web site, the organization is expressing its confidence that the software is stable enough to be the primary browser and mail client for members of the development team, although it still will go through several versions before a final release. In general, an alpha version is not considered stable enough for the public, but Mozilla watchers may want to give it a test spin.
Neither Mozilla nor Netscape could be reached immediately for comment.
The release is a major milestone for Mozilla, which was founded by Netscape Communications to handle the open source development of the Communicator browser. During its short history, the group has struggled to meet deadlines and has suffered several key employee defections.
Last April, Mozilla founder and open source advocate Jamie Zawinski walked off the project on the eve of Mozilla's first anniversary, expressing frustration over the group's failure to produce a full-featured, usable browser. Since Zawinski's departure, Mozilla has encountered still more delays.
The alpha release comes just one month after the project reached another significant milestone with a relatively complete trial version, M12. In addition, the group has finally had success in reaching outside of Netscape to rally volunteers to help with coding, bug hunting and other tasks.
In an open source development model, the source code to a piece of software is made publicly available. Developers volunteer their labor, and anyone can use the resulting product under the terms of a public license. Mozilla's "chief lizard-wrangler," Mitchell Baker, told News.com last month that after a slow start, the number of non-Netscape contributors to Mozilla has "increased dramatically."
If the group appears to be reinvigorated, however, it remains to be seen whether its efforts will amount to too little too late.
Microsoft has moved ahead with new versions of its Internet Explorer browser, which has captured increasing market share as Netscape's Mozilla project has languished.
Netscape, which was acquired by America Online last year, will release a Netscape-branded version of the Mozilla browser, including its own initial alpha and intermediate beta trial versions. Despite the release of the Mozilla alpha, Netscape has not indicated when its long-promised, retooled version of Communicator will be made available.
For version 5.0, Mozilla has been rebuilding Communicator from the ground up, creating a browser made of separable components in conformity with industry standards recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium.
Communicator 5.0 is based on Gecko, the Communicator browsing engine responsible for rendering graphics and text. In addition, it uses Extensible User Interface Language (XUL), a new technology for creating the user interface with Web programming languages rather than computer coding languages.
XUL is expected to make it easier for developers to create Mozilla-based browsers for multiple computer operating systems.