Since the Web's beginnings, developers and entrepreneurs have pointed to sites' abilities to host software applications traditionally found on personal computers. Web sites that focus on these types of programs--known as application service providers--have proliferated.
But independent developers working through Mozilla.org, America Online's open-source browser development group, want to take those capabilities a step further. They are laying plans to turn the browser itself into a multitasking application that can surf the Web, edit Web pages, and handle spreadsheets, presentations and traditional word-processing tasks.
To this end, Mozilla participant James Russell has launched an effort to integrate into the Mozilla browser the StarOffice productivity applications soon to be released into open-source development by Sun Microsystems.
In an open-source development project, the underlying source code to a piece of software is made publicly available, generally for free and licensed use. Developers who use the source code are required to share their changes and improvements.
Open-source software development by loose networks of independent programmers spawned much of the Internet's early software. In recent years, companies have cottoned on to the idea of releasing their own propriety software into open-source development, beginning with Netscape Communications' decision more than two years ago to release the source to its browser, then named "Communicator," through Mozilla.org.
Software companies have tended to release products to open-source initiatives when those products on the ropes. Netscape opened Communicator after Microsoft's Internet Explorer made serious encroachments on Netscape's once-dominant market share. Apple released parts of its QuickTime code in the face of RealNetworks' persistent streaming media dominance and Microsoft's aggressive moves on the market.
Sun is following the same script with its promised release of the StarOffice suite. By attempting to merge the Mozilla and the StarOffice efforts, the nascent MozOffice will be aiming at two of Microsoft's most entrenched market successes. Microsoft's Office applications, including Word and Excel, have trounced competitors such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3.
"I see StarOffice as a big shortcut to a Mozilla-based office productivity suite," said MozOffice founder James Russell. "StarOffice offers huge shortcuts because it uses all these APIs (application programming interfaces) compatible with Microsoft documents."
The nascent, independent MozOffice has barely registered on Mozilla's or Netscape's radar. But sources at both organizations said the effort was in line with their expectations of what people can do with the Mozilla code, particularly with the browsing engine, known as Gecko.
"We're seeing an increasing number of applications using the power of the Gecko technologies," said Eric Krock, group product manager for tools and components at Netscape. "Gecko can be used to build Web-enabled content and applications because it's a much more powerful and generalized platform than just a browser engine."
Browser engines such as Gecko are responsible for the primary business of Web browsing--rendering on visitors' computers the images, text and underlying instructions written in Web pages.
Part of Gecko's flexibility lies in a new technology under development at Netscape called XML-based User Interface Language, or XUL (pronounced "zool"). Drafted in March 1999, XUL is a technology for crafting the browser's graphical user interface (GUI) in Web markup languages that browsers can understand, rather than in the traditional computer programming languages such as C++, which must be written to a particular computer operating system.
XUL is a dialect of Extensible Markup Language (XML), a standard for creating task- or industry-specific Web markup languages, as well as for making Web documents more thoroughly searchable and intelligible to computers.
"Developers can use the power of our technologies to implement all kinds of interesting applications that have user interfaces defined in XUL, that exchange data in XML, and are rendered by the Gecko browser engine in the Mozilla browser," Krock said.
While Sun, Mozilla and now MozOffice train their sights on Microsoft, the software giant notes that for its part, integration of Office applications with the Web is nothing new.
"One of the major design goals of Office 2000 was to make it easier for individuals to work on familiar Office applications in a more integrated way with the Web," said Lisa Gurry, product manager for Office. "We've been working on providing this integration for some time and will continue to do so."
Gurry noted that Office 97 lets people perform basic Web design tasks within applications such as Word and Excel.
But MozOffice advocates say that kind of creeping integration does not go far enough.
"The fundamental principle of an 'Office suite' is flawed," Robert O'Callahan, a Mozilla contributor, wrote to the "mozilla-general" discussion board. "People should not have to grapple with different applications that handle different types of data...It is not irrational or impractical to have all these kinds of content in one document, viewed and edited through one application."
MozOffice's backers don't think the technical barriers to such a meta-application are immense. But they said the delay of Netscape's browser remains a barrier to any development effort.
"It's probably not terribly hard to get there from here," O'Callahan wrote. "The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is creating the document model. Mozilla has the basic rendering, editing and UI engine. We just need to ship a browser first."