Apple snub stings Mozilla

As Apple computer chooses open-source competitor KHTML for its Safari browser, Mozilla critics say AOL Time Warner's browser suffers from code bloat, among other problems.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
6 min read
AOL Time Warner's Mozilla project is facing new questions about quality after Apple Computer's release of a browser based on rival open-source code.

More on Apple's browser
Apple last week unveiled its own browser, called Safari. The company said it was based on the KHTML rendering engine that is the core of Konqueror, an open-source file manager and Web browser for the K Desktop Environment (KDE).

In an e-mail congratulating KHTML engineers on their work and its selection by Apple, Safari's engineering manager touted the technology over Mozilla and its rendering engine, Gecko.

"When we were evaluating technologies over a year ago, KHTML and KJS stood out," Safari Engineering Manager Don Melton wrote. (KJS is KDE's JavaScript interpreter.) "Not only were they the basis of an excellent, modern and standards-compliant Web browser, they were also less than 140,000 lines of code. The size of your code and ease of development within that code made it a better choice for us than other open-source projects."

Despite its diplomatic tone and anonymous reference, Mozilla veterans read between the lines of Melton's message.

In a Web log, Mozilla founder and former evangelist Jamie Zawinski said Apple is bad-mouthing Mozilla.

"Translated through a de-weaselizer, (Melton's e-mail) says: 'Even though some of us used to work on Mozilla, we have to admit that the Mozilla code is a gigantic, bloated mess, not to mention slow, and with an internal API so flamboyantly baroque that frankly we can't even comprehend where to begin,'" Zawinski wrote.

One Mozilla staff member called KHTML selection an understandable if not foregone conclusion, given Mozilla's technical problems.

"I guess I'm supposed to be mortally offended--or at least embarrassed--that they went with KHTML instead of our Gecko engine, but I'm having trouble working up the indignation," wrote Mike Shaver in a Web log posting. "We've all known forever that Gecko missed its 'small-and-lean' target by an area code, and we've been slogging back towards the goal, dragging our profilers and benchmarks behind us, for years."

Shaver, who left Netscape three years ago but retained his position on the small Mozilla staff, said that in Apple's shoes he might have made a similar decision.

"If I had to write a new browser, and I was going to have to touch the layout code in a serious way, I would think about Mozilla alternatives," Shaver wrote. "I really, really hope that Mozilla will learn from Safari/KHTML, because they've done a lot of great work in about a tenth of the code."

Mitchell Baker, who goes by the title of chief lizard wrangler at Mozilla, defended the Mozilla project against technical gripes in a prepared statement. "Gecko offers crossplatform capabilities, leading standards support as well as a full feature set and tested compatibility on the Web," she said.

"Gecko's speedy crossplatform nature is important to maintaining a Web to which all users have access regardless of their platform," she added. "Gecko is already embedded and distributed in real-world applications from Red Hat, IBM, OEone, Netscape and CompuServe, and we look forward to the upcoming releases of Gecko-based products that are currently in development."

Slow progress
Mozilla has faced criticism before over the pace of its development efforts, which were originally conceived as the Web community's best chance to challenge the dominance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Mozilla 1.0 was released last year, after long delays that effectively allowed Microsoft to cement its lead.

AOL Time Warner's Netscape division issued Netscape 6--its first browser based on the Mozilla code--to poor reviews, but a subsequent update answered many of the critics. Netscape Communications is Mozilla's corporate sponsor.

Mozilla and Netscape have both seen small gains in market share, appearing in the market alongside an independent entry from Norway's Opera Software. None has significantly challenged Microsoft's lead, however, which remains well above 90 percent, according to a recent survey.

Apple's browser is unlikely to alter the market-share picture, but is still a significant entry into the field. Although it caters to a small group of users, it could help Apple wean itself from its reliance on Microsoft's IE and create new software services. Apple's vote also carries significant weight in software circles as a result of its development of several highly-regarded applications for its Macintosh personal computers, particularly its iTunes and iPhoto multimedia tools.

Melton's e-mail detailed the Safari team's deep roots in the Mozilla project. Melton helped launch Mozilla in 1998. Safari engineer David Hyatt launched Chimera, a version of Mozilla for Mac OS X.

Asked to elaborate on its rejection of Mozilla, Apple went out of its way to minimize its dissatisfaction with the technology it bypassed.

"The Gecko engine is a fairly well-regarded engine," said Chris Bourdon, product marketing manager for Mac OS X. "It isn't to say that there is anything poor about Gecko or Mozilla. The Safari team just felt KHTML was a better code base from which they could build a browser."

Bourdon said Safari engineers looked at size, speed and compatibility in choosing KHTML. In addition to Mozilla, Apple also considered building its own browser from scratch.

Bourdon said the fact KHTML's small size--140,000 lines of code--let Apple build a browser that is a svelte 3 MB in size. He compared that with Netscape's more than 17 MB, though that includes an e-mail reader and other peripheral applications.

Untying browser knots
Apple, which embarked on its browser project in order to free itself further from dependence on Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser, may have balked at using Mozilla because of its ties to AOL Time Warner. The media giant's Netscape unit funds and staffs Mozilla's nonvolunteer positions.

Though shared enmity with Microsoft has made Apple's relations with AOL Time Warner comparatively warm, the question remains whether Apple would want to trade in its browser reliance on the world's largest technology company for that of the world's largest media and technology company.

Apple and analysts alike insisted that technical, rather than political, considerations were the real reason behind Apple's choice.

"Every discussion I had with them had more to do with the quality and size of the kernel and what they could do with it," said Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies in San Jose, Calif. "My suspicion is the real goal was to just try to work with what they considered the best technology that they could build on. And they did a heck of a lot of research."

Since Safari's release last week, Web developers have been trying the browser out and discovering bugs in its rendering capabilities and standards compliance. That's only to be expected from the first public beta of a browser, and Safari's Hyatt has been maintaining a Web log detailing some of the more prominent problems and their resolutions.

While Mozilla has long carried the torch of standards compliance, standards advocates called the new prominence of its open-source competitor a boon for Web standards.

"The two projects have had very different histories and goals--some very much in line with our stance, and some that may have served to detract attention away from their implementing standards as well as we'd like," said Steven Champeon, a member of the Web Standards Project and chief technology officer of Hesketh.com. "But in the long run, as long as the number of highly standards-compliant browsers continues to grow, and we can see some great competition out there, everyone wins."

One Web developer cheered Apple's decision, and agreed with the company's comparative evaluation of the two open-source browsers.

KHTML is "very fast, doesn't have nearly the bloat of Mozilla, and does most of what I need," said Alex Russell, a Web application developer for SecurePipe and a lead developer for netWindows. "The Mozilla rendering engine isn't slow, but at the same time it has emphasized crossplatform correctness over speed, while KTHML has taken a slightly more expedient approach of shooting for a smaller feature set, getting it right, and then making things fast."