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Mozilla's next big step

Mitchell Baker is shepherding the Mozilla.org project as it prepares to release its first Web browser. Is it a threat to Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Stranger things have happened.

It's been a long four years for Mitchell Baker.

As the leader of the Mozilla.org project, an AOL-funded open-source Web browser technology, Baker has been trying to stoke the fire she helped light in 1998. Mozilla, which was created using Netscape's browser code, found support among a legion of software developers intent on blocking the juggernaut advance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

However, the revolutionary fervor of 1998 has been tempered by the realities of the marketplace, and IE's share of the market long ago surpassed Netscape, now based on Mozilla technology.

Yet with Microsoft's ongoing antitrust trial as a backdrop, Mozilla is close to finally launching its 1.0 version. Although largely a ceremonial measure, the milestone marks the first time Mozilla's code will be ready for developers to use in a final form. Mozilla supporters are anxiously awaiting the release, saying the technology will foster a new burst of innovation for Web browsing technology.

Making sure that's a prediction and not a pipe dream is going to be Baker's challenge. She recently offered her thoughts to CNET News.com on why, despite the heavy odds against it, Mozilla will triumph.

Q: Mozilla 1.0 is going to be released soon. What do you see as the biggest technical achievement in this release?
A: With 1.0 we've created almost from scratch a technically viable alternative for Web browsing, mail, and news and chat. We've had a major emphasis on embedding APIs and freezing APIs. For us, 1.0 implies quality for the kinds of product that have already been shipping but also usefulness for people who want stable APIs.

In terms of companies that may want to use Mozilla, how are you going to reach out? And will you be primarily pushing Gecko as the focal point of Mozilla?
We reach out through our technology. Mozilla.org is a technology organization. We don't have a marketing branch, and we don't have marketing resources. So we strive to provide technology that's useful to people and to make it known. We do not have, or currently plan, a marketing campaign. If someone wanted to do that, you know, we would certainly be interested and talk about it. But right now, it's not in our plans.

Does that make it more difficult to get attention?
What we have found is that there are a lot of companies out there looking at Mozilla. They don't actually talk about it in public. What tends to happen is that a company will see a technology that's of interest, pull it in-house, work with it for a while--maybe they let us know, maybe they don't. If they are building a product and have a particular bug or problem that's of concern to them, they come to us. So with 1.0, that's our signal to those companies that we think it's ready.

At the same time, though, Microsoft is the biggest competitor for Mozilla and Gecko. The browser is free, and it's bundled into Windows. Is there really an advantage for any corporation or Web developer or device manufacturer to really want to be using Mozilla?
Absolutely. First of all, Mozilla is free as well. Secondly, as you said, IE is bundled into Windows. Not everyone in the world wants Windows. Not every company wants their core rendering engine to be tied into the Windows OS and whatever business plan is developed for the Windows OS. What we offer at Mozilla is a standards-compliant, cross platform set of

Not every company wants their core rendering engine to be tied into the Windows OS and whatever business plan is developed for the Windows OS.
technologies that a vendor can use, modify as fits their needs, and also try to influence the project, so the whole project goes in a direction that makes sense for their industry or product. We offer competitive technologies. They're often free. Beyond free, they're open source. They are cross platform. They're designed to be flexible, and they're designed to avoid lock-in to some particular setting.

Look at all the big, major PC manufacturers who obviously have an interest in keeping Windows in their boxes. Doesn't that automatically nullify your ability to reach most of the PCs out there?
A couple of things--and I don't want to spend the whole day talking about Microsoft.

We won't. Don't worry.
Technology alone is not going to change Microsoft's position in the world. Right? Microsoft is a monopoly. We know it conducts illegal activities. Even the Federal Appellate Court agrees with that. Mozilla alone is not going to be the end of the Microsoft monopoly. But what we do is we play a particular role, and our role is to provide the technology that allows an option and allows choice. That technology needs to be built in to products that people use. But we don't aim our releases for mass-market consumers. We're not producing that product. We're producing the technology that others can build to use those products.

Who are you really aiming at?
Well, actually that gets back to a question you asked earlier, which is what technologies are we interested in--or do we think will be useful for a set of people. We're aiming at both companies and projects that need browsing-related client technologies for the Web. With Gecko, our layout engine and related technologies...there's our cross platform user interface, known as XUL, which is extraordinarily useful and allows Web developers to actually build applications. In combination with JavaScript and CSS, it allows a whole new range of people to build applications. You don't need to be a C++ programmer in order to do so. That has an active community of people who are testing it out to build projects and applications.

Your organization was founded four years ago, and there have been very well-publicized fits and starts from the Mozilla movement. What are some of the lessons that you guys have learned over the past four years?
I'd say the first lesson is to set reasonable expectations, which was not the case for the Mozilla project. It was launched with the expectation that thousands of programmers would suddenly appear able to work on this complex, key technology, that technology alone was going to make a massive dent in the Microsoft juggernaut, and that development going forward of the stuff would be easy.

You mentioned earlier that Microsoft is not necessarily the competitor you want to focus on too much. What is the sweet spot right now for Mozilla?
Well, the broad sweet spot for Mozilla is the whole set of companies interested in technologies for building Web-enabled applications. So that's Gecko, the layout engine, and the other technologies that we talked about earlier. That's the sweet spot in a broad range. There's a range of non-PC devices either on the market or under consideration or in development, and there's a set of those where Mozilla makes perfect sense today. And those range down to the iPaq level, where we've seen a number of companies port Mozilla to that type of device.

On those range of devices Mozilla makes perfect sense. It's already cross platform. It is intended to be portable. The sort of platform-specific code is very small and is isolated, and the technologies are available. There's another set of non-PC devices in primarily cell phone areas where you have very strict footprint and memory requirements and where there are some browsers available today. I think they're not completely fully functional, meaning certain pretty significant trade-offs have been made to get some browsing functionality into a cell phone. Mozilla is not at (that) level today. And you couldn't take it today and put it on a cell phone. We'll start thinking about footprint pretty seriously now that Mozilla 1.0 is past us.

Where can you put it on now then?
Well, we've seen it. I always hesitate to say you can do something until we've actually seen it. And we've seen it on the iPaq level of products. And we've seen people building a range of Linux Mozilla-based products. A number of them are in the set-top box arena. We'll see as the non-PC market develops and more people are trying new things. We do get calls from companies in these areas interested in Mozilla and testing it out and trying various things with it. Many of them don't want to be public until they've gotten further along and figured out what they're going to do. But I think that now that we have 1.0 almost out the door, we'll start to see what actually can be done with Mozilla.

When you say the ones that are testing Mozilla, are these major technology companies or are they more the start-up type?
There are some of both. Mozilla is an open-source project, and so we mandate that all of the engineering work be done in public. We also understand that companies have marketing plans and so on, and they often don't want to announce,

Mozilla alone is not going to be the end of the Microsoft monopoly.
"Well, we're thinking about maybe using this technology for a product, or we've gotten to this certain prototype level." So, I'm very careful if someone comes to me to talk about Mozilla not to pass that on until they're ready. It's frustrating, but it's important. There are start-up companies, and then there are some larger mainstream companies looking at Mozilla, but doing so privately.

AOL is now testing Gecko inside of its AOL 7.0 software. Is that a major momentum shift for you guys? And do you think that would start heating up the browser wars again, or is that period pretty much over?
Well, first I don't comment at all on what AOL might or might not do or might not be thinking. I'm not an AOL executive, and so no one should read into anything I say a secret knowledge of AOL plans. If AOL ships Gecko in its AOL client that would be a significant achievement for the Mozilla project and would help our goal by promoting market share. We would like to see that happen. A lot of the work that's been done on the code in the last six or nine months has been aimed at producing a quality of code base that would allow that to happen in terms of performance, stability, and some of the embedding-related APIs that we're in the process of freezing.

What really is the point then of Mozilla on a larger philosophical level? There are already browsers out there that are free. There are already standards out there that people use to develop on browsers. Why does the open-source portion of this--why is that even significant? Why does it even matter?
Browsers are free. Well, some browsers are free, but they're not free of ties, and they're not free of development and distribution decisions based on certain business goals. And some of the browsers that are out there are more or less standards-compliant and may implement things in a nonstandard way. We've seen that. Or add nonstandard extensions. Free of cost does not mean free of ties. And the Mozilla project is designed to produce--and has in fact produced--the most standards-compliant browser to date.

And then there's a second point. Companies that wish to use layout technology or other types of technologies in their applications may not wish to use, for example, the Gecko equivalent from Microsoft, which is deeply tied in to the Windows OS. What we offer is not only free of charge, but...we offer a product where those people using it can help determine the direction the product develops and where they are not tied into the direction if they don't like it.