Another key Mozilla figure departs

John Giannandrea, a key architect of recent Communicator innovation, has resigned from AOL, raising the spectre of looming brain drain.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
A key architect of recent Communicator browser innovation has resigned from America Online, raising questions as to whether the firm's client division is due for a heavy "brain drain."

John Giannandrea, a five-year Netscape veteran who cocreated Communicator's Smart Browsing features, introduced in Version 4.06, submitted his resignation and completed his last day of work at AOL's Netscape division this week. News of his departure follows directly on Netscape employee No. 20 and Mozilla cofounder Jamie Zawinski's surprise resignation.

Not surprisingly, AOL and Mozilla said they regretted the resignations, but downplayed their significance.

"We will miss John Source code for the masses and Jamie," said Mike Shaver, who will step into Zawinski's shoes at the Mozilla organization, becoming responsible for developer relations and project evangelism.

"They've both done really excellent work in getting Mozilla where it is now. But Mozilla is bigger than Netscape, and it's certainly bigger than two or three people. Obviously it's a negative thing for us to have these two leave, but it's not fatal for us at all."

Mozilla.org is the group set up by Netscape in January 1998 to shepherd the open source development of the Communicator browser code. Netscape decided to publish the source code to its browser and give the product away free of charge after Microsoft made rapid and significant inroads into its once-monolithic market share.

In an open source development model, the source code to a piece of software is made publicly available. Developers volunteer their labor and anyone can use the resulting product under the terms of a public license.

But Mozilla has had limited success in attracting outside developers to its cause, and the effort has been primarily staffed by Netscape engineers. Because Mozilla is still so heavily reliant on in-house developers, any significant exodus of engineering staff could pose serious problems to Netscape's new owner, AOL, in its client development plans.

Widespread rumors suggest that other client engineers, including key players who have been with the company since its early days, will be leaving in coming weeks.

One former Netscape engineer who asked not to be named laid the blame for past and present departures at the feet of middle management at Netscape, which he described as indecisive.

"Any time there's attrition, you have to look at the management of that group," said the former Netscape employee. "When you see the smartest and best people leaving, it reflects on them. How many people have to leave before something happens at the top?"

The employee recalled that when Netscape was on the ropes against Microsoft, the client division's energies were badly fragmented with four separate development tracks.

"When we should have been focusing on one product, we were working on versions 4.06, 4.5, the 5.0 browser without Raptor, and Raptor. It wasn't until after we shipped 4.06 and 4.5 that they decided it was time to merge 5.0 and Raptor. To delay those hard decisions until the breaking point was a big mistake."

Raptor refers to Netscape's next-generation browsing engine. It was released in a developer preview in December under the name "Gecko" and is now the heart of Mozilla's browser.

The effects of high-profile defections can extend to future recruitment efforts as well as hampering software development, the former Netscape engineer warned.

"A lot of great talent came to Netscape to get a chance to work with people" with high profiles in the software industry, he said. "They've really got to try to keep those people."