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With update, Mozilla introduces fees

The developer of open-source Net software unveils the latest version of its Web applications package and announces fee-based services, a step back to its Netscape roots.

In an attempt to pick up where Netscape left off with consumer marketing, and perhaps to raise some cash, Mozilla is offering customer support at $39.95 per incident.

With Wednesday's release of Mozilla 1.5, the open-source group founded by Netscape Communications introduced its first for-fee service and the first CD of the software, which costs $5 for shipping and handling. The software will remain available for free download.

Mozilla said the move had more to do with taking on responsibilities formerly carried out by the receding Netscape business, a unit of AOL Time Warner, than it did with creating new revenue for its product.

"We do need to generate revenue to sustain ourselves, and that will be a focus," said Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation. "But the driving rationale for end-user support is adoption, and to make the end-user support better. Before, we were primarily a technology organization, and for the general consumer we relied on Netscape to provide the polished end-user experience. Now we are taking steps to fill those niches ourselves."

Mozilla said other customer-support services were in the works. The group hired Decision One to handle the telephone support.

Mozilla, recently spun off from AOL as an independent foundation, is adjusting to financial life without a corporate parent. The foundation, which employs fewer than 10 people, has fully completed its transition away from AOL. It operates on $2 million in seed money from AOL; chairman Mitch Kapor contributed $300,000.

Now the foundation is in the process of securing other contributions. Although Baker declined to identify possible givers, she said negotiations were underway with several companies that rely on the Mozilla code in one way or another.

Whatever Mozilla's motivation for offering $39.95 help calls, the service will be something of an anomaly in the browser market, where products are generally provided free of charge, and services to support them are few.

Mozilla's addition of fees for service and CDs also harks back to its ancestor, the Netscape browser. In June 1997, Netscape priced the browser suite at $59.

That price declined over the subsequent six months as Netscape steadily lost market share to Microsoft's free Internet Explorer alternative. After ceding half the market to Microsoft, Netscape in 1998 not only gave away the browser for free, but released its source code for free and licensed use and created Mozilla to develop it.

Netscape's risky freeware move did not stem the Microsoft tide, and today Internet Explorer dominates the browser market worldwide. AOL, which acquired Netscape, eventually settled its browser antitrust claims against Microsoft for three quarters of a billion dollars and subsequently spun off Mozilla as an independent foundation.

Some open-source software titles, like the Linux operating system, have spawned businesses that charge for service and support. But Baker rejected the comparison between Mozilla's new offering and those support-oriented open-source businesses.

"We are a nonprofit, so our goal is diversity on the Web and maintaining a Web that isn't controlled by a small number of vendors," said Baker. "We need to generate enough money to sustain ourselves. So in that sense we are not like (the for-profit Linux support provider) Red Hat."

The strategy shift toward the consumer is one in a long series for Mozilla, which in its six-year history has wavered between code bases and markets. Before AOL spun it off, Mozilla was positioning itself as the browser of choice for developers of mobile application software, and promised that Mozilla 1.0 would consist of small, easily separated components.

Instead, developers conceded after Mozilla 1.0's launch that the product had become large and unwieldy. Apple Computer drove the point home when it selected the competing open-source browser KHTML, part of the K Desktop Environment, for its Safari browser.

To address the size issue, Mozilla is working on two separate, standalone titles: the Mozilla Firebird browser and the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail application. The browser is available in a 0.7 prerelease version, and the e-mail client in a 0.3 version.

With Mozilla 1.5, Mozilla updated the software's MailNews e-mail client and Composer HTML editing tools, adding a spell-checker for both applications, among other new features.

The latest version of Composer touts improved image resizing capabilities, expanded tables and support for absolutely positioned objects, which can now be moved using a mouse. The HTML editing tools also offer increased index management support, and the software's Source View function now uses an editor to allow find-and-replace functionality.