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Mozilla comes of age

In the year since its birth, mozilla.org has certainly breathed new life into the open source software development model.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
8 min read
In the year since its birth, mozilla.org has breathed new life into the digital phenomenon known as open source software.

The organization won the dedication, respect, and--most important--the free labor of software developers worldwide. It inspired giant computer firms to take a closer look at open source development, and it potentially robbed Microsoft of another crucial monopoly.

All this without even releasing a product.

Now, as mozilla.org celebrates its Source code for the masses first birthday, it faces the crucial challenge of living up to its parent's expectations. Netscape Communications, which launched the organization and continues to provide its technical infrastructure and core personnel, has put the future of its Web-browsing software in the hands of mozilla's widely dispersed army of coders. The next version of Communicator will be mozilla's creation with Netscape's name on it.

With the oversight of mozilla.org, Netscape's browser has gone directly from the Internet's endangered species list to virtual immortality.

"Mozilla ensured that as long as there were people in the world interested in its existence, Communicator was going to survive," said mozilla.org cofounder Jamie Zawinski. "It was no longer tied to one company, or one company's business decisions. It would never get mothballed."

Confidence in mozilla.org's security received a temporary jolt late last year with the announcement that America Online would acquire Netscape. But AOL chief executive Steve Case was quick to assuage open source developers' fears with strong statements of support for the organization.

Zawinski and others at mozilla.org and Netscape will observe the first anniversary of their open source initiative on March 31, the date last year when the code was actually released. While the organization was announced in late January, the subsequent two months were occupied with preparing the code for public consumption. That meant going through it line by line and making sure Netscape wasn't giving away the source code to anything it didn't actually own--like Sun Microsystems' Java technology, for example.

It also meant excising some rough language in the developer comments.

Zawinkski spent those months doing within Netscape what he now spends much of his time doing outside the company: evangelizing.

"I personally spent a lot of time inside Netscape selling the idea of mozilla.org, explaining what it means to be in an open source project," Zawinski recalled. "A lot of people there were not familiar with this way of doing things, especially in management."

Once mozilla.org did release the code, it was overwhelmed by the magnitude of developer response. In the first day, more than 4,500 people downloaded the code from mozilla.org, not counting downloads from about 100 mirror sites.

It was not all smooth sailing from there, however.

One year old and no baby yet
One major stumbling block that has stood between mozilla and a finished product is an about-face on the development of the layout engine, or renderer. The heart of the browser, this software is responsible for interpreting HTML code and rendering it in the browser window.

Mozilla.org had started out on a dual development track for layout engines, refining the Communicator 4.0 engine on one track, and constructing from scratch a new, more "componentized" and standards-compliant engine on the second.

Several months into development, mozilla.org decided to scuttle the refinements on the 4.0 engine and throw all its weight behind the next-generation product, which was released in a developer preview under the name "Gecko."

That decision was based in part on internal considerations. But Netscape also has acknowledged the influence of advocacy groups and Web developers in particular, who were agitating for better standards compliance than the 4.0 engine provided.

"When we decided to cut losses with the old engine and switch over to Gecko, it was a hard decision to make," Zawinski said. "It cost a lot of time. One of the things that kind of bothers me is that it's been a year now and we haven't had a baby yet."

Still, Zawinski said he has no regrets, and points out the Gecko decision as a point in favor of the open source model.

"With open source projects, better decisions get made," he said. "There are practicality issues, but in general you make decisions based on what you want the program to do and how you want to get there. It's about what makes a good tool, not about the bottom line. And people wind up putting more pride into their work as a result."

Nothing succeeds like success
That said, mozilla.org is businesslike enough to have a schedule, and Netscape expects to brand its own version of mozilla.org's product in a beta version this spring, with a final "shrink-wrapped" product to follow in the summer. The standalone rendering engine is expected to see a shrink-wrapped version in the spring.

Only then will the world be able to judge the results of Netscape's bold experiment, observers and participants agree.

"The true measure of mozilla's success will come when they release a final product," said Glenn Davis Project Cool's chief technology officer and cofounder of the Web Standards Project.

"We're all anxiously awaiting that day. The real test will be to see how mozilla.org responds to their market after their first release and if they can maintain momentum and build something that promises far more than is visible currently," Davis said.

Netscape agrees that the proof will be in the product.

"The bulk of our engagement of the public will happen after we ship a version based on open source," said Jim Hamerly, vice president of client products at Netscape.

"We're not at the point where we see mozilla showing up in substantive commercial products. From a public perspective, it will become more prevalent once we have a release that is fully stable, that's gone through a QA process and a full beta. We're not quite there yet," Hamerly said.

What Linux owes mozilla
So mozilla.org, despite the warm reception the Gecko demonstration received for its speed and small size, continues to count its accomplishments in the category of inspiration more than product.

Many developers attribute to mozilla.org part of the recent surge in interest in the open-source Linux operating system.

"I think that what they've done is fundamentally shifted the marketplace's perception, and that's an enormous accomplishment," said Laurence Rozier, president of intelligent agent software firm SIAware. "Even if we never see a strong groundswell of different browsers based on mozilla, the industry will have changed because of it. By embracing the open source model for a product that was widely distributed in the mainstream, and saying they were supportive of Linux, they gave open source a very important boost.

"Eveyone uses a browser," Rozier continued, "and once they could see that [the open source development model] works, it made a big impact."

In addition to open source software projects like Linux and Apache--a Web server that has piqued the interest of IBM--mozilla.org has also seen since its launch the advent of open, or "freeware," directories. These are Internet guides compiled not by a centralized editorial staff but by volunteers. Netscape acquired one such guide, NewHoo, in November.

Zawinski remains agnostic over whether mozilla.org's launch fueled interest in freeware projects or whether the first year of mozilla.org merely coincided with it. But he has noticed a few unexpected gains for open source in the mozilla.org process.

In addition to freeing the source code for Communicator, mozilla.org also revealed the source of many of the tools the group uses to manage the development process. These include "Bugzilla," a bug hunting database, as well as "Bonsai" and "Tinderbox," development tree management tools.

Mozilla developers not only used these tools, but submitted patches and improvements to them. Red Hat Software, a leading Linux provider, now is running Bugzilla on its own servers.

In addition to the programmers, bug-hunters, and module owners who participate in the day-to-day work of the organization, mozilla.org has inspired others to work for the cause. MozillaZine launched in August to provide coverage of mozilla-related news. The site merged with MozBin, a site for mozilla binary distributions, late last year, according to MozillaZine founder Chris Nelson.

The "geek factor" and other pitfalls
Mozilla.org and the open source model are not without their critics. Chief among these--perhaps not surprisingly--is Microsoft.

Open source development can give rise to problems with customer support and software compatibility, said Internet Explorer product manager Mike Nichols.

"One of the benefits they originally talked about was that customers could modify the code to suit their own needs," Nichols noted. "But then those customers are going to have to support it themselves. The open source folks haven't really stated a good, well understood policy for enterprises on how that would work."

Nichols also raised concerns that under the open source model, developers will be sufficiently concerned with making the browser compatible with other applications on the desktop.

He also warned against what might be thought of as the "geek factor."

"Advocates of the open source model say that individual developers and hackers at home who want certain features can add that to the core code if OK'd by the mozilla body," Nichols said. "Those are folks who are really into computers, the kind of people who wouldn't even want a graphical user interface. These are people who work on Linux and other weird Unix variations. Where is the focus on the regular Joe user who wants an easy user experience?"

Microsoft may view open source development as an inferior development method, but the company also views it as a significant threat, as illustrated in the now notorious Halloween memo posted to the Web in October.

Indeed, both the mozilla mascot and the mozilla.org organization were conceived with a mind to challenging the Redmond juggernaut. Mozilla the dinosaur or dragon (even its creators equivocate on its species) is named for a cross between Netscape's original name, Mosaic Communications, and the legendary Japanese monster Godzilla.

"We wanted to name it something that would crush the competition like a bug," Zawinski recalls. "But the marketing people came in and got cold feet and we wound up calling the product Navigator, and giving up the mascot for that cheap '70s ship's wheel icon."

But the lizard lived on within the company.

And even if the mozilla.org organization doesn't wind up crushing Microsoft's Internet Explorer like a bug, the organization does appear to have succeeded in withholding from Microsoft the same kind of domination in the browser market that it enjoys with operating systems.

"My feeling is that releasing the source code to the browser was a way to prevent Microsoft from controlling the standards," Zawinski said. "They already exert a huge amount of influence. They say they're using open standards, but it's something you have to watch very carefully."

While Netscape has long stressed that the open source model is not an act of charity but a hard-nosed business decision, at least one developer notes an affinity between the organization's anniversary and the holiday season that just precedes it.

"There's an African-American holiday called Kwaanza, which is in part about collective responsibility," said SIAware's Laurence. "When history looks back on this period, it will look at mozilla and realize that it was a key turning point in society's perspective, that competition is good but collective work and responsibility is also good. And you don't have to have one to the exclusion of the other."