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Culture

Andreessen's Mozilla pounding on Microsoft's Gates

As I wrestled with my taxes last night, Grandma DuBaud called in an agitated state.

    As I wrestled with my taxes last night, Grandma DuBaud called in an agitated state. I couldn't make out what she was saying at first: Lots of "mon Dieus" and "sacre bleus"--and even a well-executed "Oy vey," which I attributed to her new infatuation with Seinfeld reruns. Had her TurboTax crashed in medias res? Had the just-released Communicator source code resisted her attempts to compile? No, it was that Gates guy again. The man has hit $50 billion in paper worth, and my dear grandmother was calling for the storming of the Redmond Bastille on Microsoft Way.

    Struggling with the French idiom for "join the club," I was about to commiserate when an email popped up. Eyeing the name, I realized this could be big. Netscape big. Mozilla big. I put Grandma on ice with a promise to email her the "Gates creamed in Brussels" thingy and turned to Skinvestigate.

    The note was from a guy who hears more Gulch and Valley scuttlebutt in a day than Jim Barksdale's masseuse. Let's call him Deep Code. D.C. was all worked up about the Netscape-for-free thing. When not busy posting things like "<svc_path>cmdwinfefegui.cpp line 2649" to the Mozilla newsgroups, he had been monitoring both the activity and excitement levels of the response to Netscape's digital largesse. Though he generally eschews both industry parties and high-tech hype, Deep Code found his usually cynical reserve being swept aside by both the general "psych" level of the global developer community and the quality of the work already being done on the code. I read on.

    Deep Code's report from the front indicates that coders are finding and fixing browser bugs, writing patches, incorporating new Java, SSL, XML and crypto features, and even disabling the hated <BLINK> tag. He says that Communicator seems to be "well modularized," making it easy to build versions with selected levels of functionality. My own cursory visits to online hotbeds of Netscape discussion confirmed this hive of activity: There were the Aussies incorporating 128-bit encryption (a U.S. legal no-no to export), as well as Austrians, Brits, and Danes discussing things like whether to call a Java Mozilla project "Javazilla," whether Communicator still contains any original Mosaic code from ancient times, and even how to display an image of Dogbert, which really can't be done anyway.

    One developer clearly went off the deep end, as indicated in the following post:
    "This is the element_data structure for elements whose *element_type = FORM_TYPE_SELECT_ONE, FORM_TYPE_SELECT_MULT. */ /* * nesting deeper and deeper, harder and harder, go, go, oh, OH, OHHHHH!! * Sorry, got carried away there. */ struct lo_FormElementOptionData_struct."

    I wonder if Bill Gates gets this kind of excitement from his programmers.

    This buzz was heavily foreshadowed at the big Mozilla bash in SoMa last Wednesday. By 8 p.m., a line already was snaking around the perimeter of the Sound Factory, one of San Francisco's largest alternaclubs. For the first hour or two, the preponderance of hirsute male-programmer types was a bit oppressive, but the crowd eventually balanced out, allowing for mingling with the likes of digital deity "Craig" of Craig's List fame, a twenty-something Forbes ASAP reporter, and Mr. Mozilla himself, Marc Andreessen. Between watching the funk band grind hackers from the Valley and hipsters from the City into a moderated frenzy and observing rabid gamers rocket through virtual shoot-'em-ups, I managed to enjoy myself. Give this Skindig 3-1/2 fedoras. Deep Code contends that now "It's our browser against theirs." It's possible; Mozilla is definitely at the Gates.

    Moving from code to kudos, it's interesting to observe how different tech media orgs blow their own horns online. For instance, when NEWS.COM took home a Webby, we did a nice little story about our victory and the other awards in general. Then we went on with our lives. Over at PC Week, however, there seems to be a different approach: The site hosts a large banner that says "Winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award," referring to this decidedly obscure award as the "Pulitzer Prize of the business press."

    My curiosity fueled, I checked up on what other prestigious publications pulled down coveted Neals. Taking home the gold along with PC Week were outfits such as Foodservice Equipment Report, Home Improvement Market, and the Review of Optometry. This year's big prize--the Grand Neal Award--went to National Jeweler for its "Ruby and Emerald Treatment" entry. Other winners included Contemporary Urology's "Diagnosis and Treatment of Prostate Cancer from A to Z"; Golf Shop Operations' "How To Buy"; SeaFood Business's "Bad News Bear"; and my personal favorite, Office Nurse's "Contraceptive Choices--You Can Help." The scope of the Neal awards would seem to rival that of Joseph Campbell. (Memo to self: Email editors about diversifying story topics.) Must get back to taxes and Grandma now, but remember: Your rumormeister can't win a Pulitzer, a Grand Neal, or even a slap upside the head without your rumors. Send one today!