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Netscape gives up secret recipe

Netscape faces a dilemma in giving away its Communicator source code: whether to keep additions in the public domain or let developers own their innovations.

Just when it thought it had escaped Microsoft's grip by offering its browser free of charge, Netscape Communications faces another difficult decision.

The company's plan to win back browser market share, announced two weeks ago, also calls for it to give away the source code for future releases of its Communicator software suite. That's akin to a restaurant disclosing its secret recipes, as well as handing out free meals.

Starting in March, any developer who wants the recipe for Communicator 5.0 will be able to download it, modify it, and redistribute it as a new product--all for free. Though the price is right, Netscape hasn't yet decided whether it will give developers ownership rights to the source code--a crucial issue that could spur or stifle innovation.

If successful, the strategy will turn the Internet community into Netscape's development farm team, allowing it to conserve in-house resources. If the plan fails, the company's browser share may continue to fall and take with it the company's new cash cows: server software and Web-site businesses.

Netscape's plan to give away the source code for Communicator is akin to
a restaurant disclosing its secret recipes. Netscape was predictably bullish when it made the free source code announcement. "By giving away the source code for a future version of Communicator, we can rally the entire Net community around the Communicator platform and our core businesses benefit," Netscape executive vice president Mike Homer said.

The plan, inspired by years of successful "free source code" projects--such as the Linux operating system, the Perl programming language, the GNU operating system and toolset, and the Apache Web server--is to give developers free reign in using the Communicator source code for their own projects. That, in theory, will seed the market with Netscape-based browsers, drive traffic to its advertising-supported Web site, and make it easier for the company to sell its high-margin server software and technical support services.

There are two basic philosophies in licensing source code. The first one, centered around the GNU General Public License (GPL), makes sure that all modifications and changes to the source code stay in the public domain. Such a stipulation stifles innovation, according to its critics.

"If a commercial entity wants to add on to the source code, the GPL will discourage third-party development," says Sameer Parekh, president of C2Net. Parekh points to his own model as an example. C2Net takes the freely available Apache Web server code, adds strong encryption to it, and resells it for a profit. The encryption additions remain the property of C2Net.

That would never happen under the GPL license.

"For GNU software, a modified version always has to be free software," says Richard Stallman, the software engineer who founded the GNU Project in 1983 in the quest to build an entirely free operating system. "I don't want to support parasites who build on what we've done and don't contribute to our community."

The main alternative license, based on a Unix variant called "FreeBSD," lets developers keep their changes as their own. They have the option of returning their innovations to the community (as with a GPL), but in most cases there is no stipulation to do so, which risks hurting the overall development of the core project.

Netscape then faces a conundrum with its Communicator source code. Should it go the GNU way to make sure it has full access to developers' Should Netscape make sure it has access to developers' modifications, or
encourage innovation and risk not being able to use it? modifications, or lean toward the FreeBSD model to encourage innovation at the risk of not being able to use it?

"We want to encourage as much innovation as possible," says Netscape associate general counsel Mitchell Baker. "The GPL has a lot of strong followers, as well as those who say it could discourage innovation."

Netscape has just begun discussing the pros and cons of each licensing option with people such as Parekh and Stallman. The company is unlikely to announce its decision until it releases the Communicator 5.0 source code toward the end of March.

The company has decided, however, to release the code without the third-party software bundled with it. Sun Microsystems' Java and Marimba's Castanet, for example, will have to go, says Baker.

The company also will have to strip out "most of the cryptographic libraries" from the publicly available Communicator source code because of government regulations, Baker says.  

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