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Netscape posts source code info

The company posts an information page about its plan to release the Communicator source code, but there are still key details left undecided.

Netscape Communications (NSCP) has posted an information page about its plan to release the Communicator source code, but there are still key details left undecided.

The company decided last month to make the source code--the underlying See special coverage: How free is Freeware? recipe--for its next-generation browser and other client software freely available for developers to use, modify, and resell. The move is unprecedented in the commercial software world, where source code is carefully guarded intellectual property.

But Netscape already knew it could no longer make money from its browser, so, in effect, it had nothing to lose. The company hopes the source-code release will spur third-party development of its browser and boost its market share, which has been slowly eroding due to rival Microsoft's two-year push of Internet Explorer.

The FAQ clears up some of the lingering questions about the source code release but leaves others unanswered. The biggest unanswered question concerns Netscape's method of licensing the code. There are several existing models of licensing "free software," as such programs are often called. Popular Internet software such as the Linux operating system, the GNU development tools, the Perl programming language, and the Apache Web server are all freely available with their source code, but the conditions for licensing each one vary. Netscape has not yet chosen a model, but its lawyers and engineers have been investigating options.

"There are many licenses that work for the free software community," executive vice president Mike Homer told NEWS.COM last week. "We need to find one that makes both [developers and our software resellers] happy."

Homer did not rule out creating a new license model specifically for Communicator.

Whatever the licensing model, Netscape wants to take the best developer ideas and fold them back into its own official browsers, which are now free of charge. A developer group will be set aside to review and accept ideas from the Net community.

A developer beta of the source code will be posted with the license terms and other information by March 31 on Netscape's DevEdge developer resource site. It will not be publicly available, according to the FAQ.

The code will be "primarily" in C and C++, not Java. Netscape scrapped plans to build an all-Java version of Communicator, although a standalone browser built entirely in Java is still in the works. The source code will not contain any other third-party software, such as plug-ins, or Marimba's Castanet, nor will it have any encryption features because of government regulations, according to the FAQ.

The initial release will be for Windows 95/NT, Macintosh PowerPC, and Linux.