In the wake of America Online's announcement that it intends to acquire Netscape Communications, a consensus of cautious optimism about life under AOL is building among developers working on mozilla, Netscape's open source initiative.
The announcement of the AOL acquisition sent shockwaves through the worldwide open source community and through the mozilla.org organization, which shepherds Netscape's open source effort for the Communicator Web browsing suite. Independent programmers expressed distrust of large companies and, in particular, of AOL--which is known better for its interest in consumer branding and profits than coding and technology.
As previously reported, AOL pledged from time of the initial announcement to leave mozilla.org intact.
But that did not prevent developers inside and outside mozilla.org from imagining worst-case scenarios in which AOL pulled support for the organization, folded the product into AOL's own graphical user interface, or found a way around the open source license to restrict the use of code already released.
In recent days, however, AOL has moved to reassure both Netscape and the mozilla developers that Netscape will retain its business model and that mozilla.org will retain its independence. Those efforts, including AOL chief executive Steve Case's address to Netscape employees and email to mozilla.org, appeared to have paid off.
"People are getting the feeling that it's going to be pretty much business as usual for mozilla.org," said Netscape programmer and mozilla.org cofounder Jamie Zawinski. "What we've been hearing is that AOL intends to run Netscape as separate business unit. Netscape is still going to be developing a browser, and all the things that made Netscape decide to embrace open source as a good business decision still hold."
Mozilla.org depends on Netscape for its infrastructure, including hardware, bandwidth, and facilities. The company pays Zawinski and two others to oversee the organization's day-to-day efforts. Additionally, Zawinski estimates that about two-thirds of the developers working on the mozilla code full-time are Netscape programmers.
In other words, if AOL were to change its mind about open source, it could pull the rug out from under the organization--at least in the short term.
"Netscape could decide to stop paying my salary and that of the hundred Netscape hackers working on the code," Zawinski said. "That's a business decision they could make at any time. But the whole point of the open source development model is that it's not dependent on any single company."
As for the Netscape Public License, which governs open source development, Zawinski said there was no sunset clause or other "back door" that AOL could use to stymie the open source activity if it wished to do so in the future.
Developers outside of Netscape share Zawinski's cautious optimism about AOL's stewardship.
"Everything AOL has said so far is exactly what one would want them to say," said Paul Phillips, Webmaster of Go2Net. "Other than normal paranoia, there's no reason not to take them at their word that they want to have Netscape programmers, who will be AOL programmers eventually, continue to work on the project."
An unknown part of the browser development equation is AOL's plans for the finished product.
In announcing the planned acquisition, Case said AOL would continue to support development of the browser, particularly as it integrates with Netscape's Netcenter portal site, and as AOL will integrate it into its ICQ messaging software.
"I would expect that to be a short-term decision," said Phillips, stating an opinion shared by many analysts and observers. "If AOL spends billions on Netscape, one would assume they're going to use the client software they acquired."