Mozilla.org, the group shepherding the open-source development of AOL's Communicator Web browser, is hard at work on a messaging program, or client, for users of the Internet Relay Chat network (IRC).
The IRC client could be included in Mozilla's first beta release of the browser, expected in the next four weeks. IRC, which is not affiliated with any firm, would compete directly with AOL's market-leading AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ products.
AOL will release a separate, Netscape-branded beta, or test version, later this year. The company declined to say whether it will consider including Mozilla's IRC client in the Netscape-branded version.
Client software, like a Web browser or email application, receives information from a server. In the case of instant messaging, one client sends messages to another, mediated through a central server.
The contribution of an IRC client to the Mozilla code base resuscitates an old controversy for Mozilla, which drew fire after AOL's Netscape Communications division posted and then quickly pulled a proposal for a cross-client instant messaging project.
Critics at the time accused the organization of buckling to pressure from AOL. But Mozilla countered that because AOL had submitted the proposal, the company had every right to rescind it.
With the third-party submission of the IRC client, Mozilla may help put to rest suspicions that it exists only to serve AOL and its strategic considerations.
"The IRC client is totally unrelated" to the scuttled Netscape chat effort, said Mike Shaver, Mozilla's lead for developer relations and a sometime evangelist for the organization. "There was no consultation with AOL or anyone else and no foreknowledge by AOL that it was going to happen."
AOL has said it supports a move by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to ratify a standard that would make all instant messaging systems compatible. Currently, users of one instant messenger cannot exchange messages with users of another.
Another group, called Jabber, is working on a system by which different messaging clients could communicate with a multilingual, central server. Jabber intends to submit its efforts to the Mozilla code base but has not revealed any code so far, according to Shaver.
Robert Ginda, the independent programmer who submitted the IRC client to Mozilla, said he is in consultation with Jabber to possibly integrate their contributions.
Meanwhile, Ginda and the other Mozilla developers have their work cut out for them with the IRC client.
"It's not complete yet, and the user interface needs a lot more work," Shaver said. "People are testing it now and sending feedback."
Shaver also said it is unclear how the IRC client and other extensions will be delivered when Mozilla's Communicator beta is released.
"Mozilla hasn't figured out its story on what it means to be part of the Mozilla browser when we get to beta," Shaver said. "It certainly includes the browsing engine and a handful of extensions. But others could be pieces you download separately, or it could be one big ZIP file.
"We're not sure what form the bundling will take. But if [Ginda] feels [the IRC client] ready by the time the beta comes out, we will do our best to get it out there."
Some Mozilla critics have complained that development efforts should concentrate on getting the core software out; the organization has been criticized for getting sidetracked by additional features like the IRC client. AOL's 5.0 browser is several months behind Microsoft's.
Others point out that IRC clients abound on the Net, and they question the value of having one dependent on Mozilla's Web browser.
Shaver answered that the IRC client is a valuable demonstration of how developers can user Communicator's new architecture--which is made up of discrete, reusable parts, or components--to build on top of the browser.
"One value of this demonstration is that it shows how it's possible to develop other applications on top of Mozilla," Shaver said. "Also, the browser's goal has always been to make a number of different protocols fit into a common user interface.
"With IRC that means being able to use rich text or drag and drop links. It's an interesting demonstration of Mozilla technology and what you have to do to make Mozilla speak to another part of the network," he said.
The IRC client also helps Mozilla counter the common impression that its open-source campaign has attracted few contributors outside AOL's payroll.
"I submitted this because I wanted to participate in an open-source project," Ginda said. Ginda added that he started off contributing a few patches and then became interested in the architecture of the browser and saw how an IRC client could fit into it.
He also defended the value of an IRC client tied to the Mozilla browser.
"If some people would prefer sticking with their own IRC client, that's fine with me," Ginda said. "I personally think integrating it into a single application framework is better, because it results in less duplication of resources. You can use the HTML parser from Mozilla without doing your own code."