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New source for browsers

A Web-based project called Mnemonic releases the first tangible results of a free, lightweight browser.

Netscape Communications (NSCP) isn't the only organization making its browser code free, as a Web-based project called Mnemonic has just released the first tangible results of a lightweight browser that can be downloaded and modified by anyone.

Mnemonic is part of a growing movement to provide browsing alternatives to giants Microsoft and Netscape, whose products dominate the market but frustrate some users with large footprints, interminable download times, and bugs.

The first version of the Mnemonic effort has already been released for developers to download and use, but it's far from becoming a general-use product. It's available only for Linux, a free Unix-based operating system and is still in the early stages of development.

The makers of Mnemonic want the browser to be modular--in other words, broken up into pieces so the system uses only what is absolutely necessary for the task at hand. That approach results in a core application of about 100K, according to the project leaders.

The browser-only Navigator 4.04 is about 8MB, and the smallest version of Internet Explorer 4.01 is about 13MB. Much smaller is another alternate browser, Opera, which has made a name for itself among Net users with its speed and small size--about 1 MB.

Mnemonic's modular design also allows developers to take its pieces and put them into other types of applications, such as a word processor or presentation graphics.

Such component-based development is catching on elsewhere. For example, Microsoft has spread the use of its IE browser by making the underlying HTML engine available to third parties to put into applications.

When users of America Online or Intuit's Quicken financial software jump to the Web, they use Internet Explorer technology. Microsoft may share the components of IE, but it does not make the source code available, arguing that developers prefer a prebuilt component to plug into their applications.

The idea behind the Mnemonic project, as well as Netscape's decision to make the source code for Communicator free, takes the sharing several steps further. By publishing source code--the raw recipe at the heart of the browser--the organizations hope to involve the at-large Net community in the development process.

The general principle is that anyone can use the source code, or underlying recipe, of the browser with the agreement that any modifications to it will in turn be released to the public for reuse. Netscape will release its code March 31 and has already set up a Web site for developers to download code, share information, and get advice.

Neither Netscape nor Mnemonic have decided whether developers that make commercial products with the source code will be required to submit their code back to the development community. Such a requirement makes the source-code scheme less attractive to commercial developers, who often see their augmentations of code as a competitive advantage.

Some free source code projects, such as the Apache Web server, allow developers to keep their extensions as their own.