The release of the Communicator source code may not only let a thousand browsers
bloom, but it also could make Netscape
own browser significantly smaller.
The company currently makes Communicator, a 16 MB suite of Internet
software that includes the Navigator browser, a word processor, an email
client, and a newsgroup reader. For users who don't want to use so much
stuff or spend hours downloading it over dial-up connections, Netscape also
offers a standalone Navigator that weighs in at 8 MB.
But the underlying code base of Netscape's browsers is now open to the public to peruse and
This "open source" development gives Netscape a wide range of
developers poring over and adding to its code. Those developers also may
create their own programs based on the code. Netscape in turn will use the
constantly evolving code as the base for its own browsers, branded with the
famous "N" logo.
The code, nicknamed Mozilla, can evolve in many ways, but with its
modular design--meaning the instructions are broken into discrete parts
that serve as building blocks--it is possible that the development community
will push Mozilla away from the "browser bloat" currently affecting
Netscape's and Microsoft's products (the smallest version of Internet
Explorer is a 13 MB download) and toward a leaner, more efficient paradigm.
One Netscape engineer
yesterday said his "blue-sky" goal is for the Mozilla
project to produce a basic browser under 1 MB that has the ability to read
at least 95 percent of all Web pages. On the other hand, the company
doesn't want to produce a Netscape-branded product that sacrifices the
features users have come to expect.
"You should be able to browse as much of the Web as you can now and more, and
it should be very easy to download and upgrade," said Netscape principal
engineer R.V. Guha. "Our design goals [for the Netscape-branded browsers]
are to solve both those issues."
Keep up with new features and get smaller? Netscape hopes that the
Mozilla community at large will help solve that dilemma. Given that alternative browsers such as the 1.2 MB Opera (which sacrifices certain
features such as Java for a smaller size and faster performance) have
galvanized interest, it seems likely that something similar based on the
Mozilla code--be it from Netscape or from a third-party Mozilla
licensee--is not too far off.
"It would be a great product for a lot of people who just like to surf and
are constrained by limited bandwidth connections," said John Robb,
principal of analyst firm Gomez
Furthermore, Netscape doesn't have to spend as much money on development
costs now that it has a little help from its hacker friends, Robb said.
"Two months ago, Netscape didn't have enough internal resources to take on
different product niches," he said. "Now they can take a whack at a specific target
niche, then let the community take it the rest of the way."
Because the Mozilla source code is available for anyone to download, it
legally can't contain some of the underlying technology--Java and
encryption, for example--standard to the two big browsers today. But such
technology is vital to Web use (especially encryption to conduct online
transactions), so Netscape will have to add them back in on top of the
source code when it releases future versions of its branded browser.
When asked if Netscape might leave Java out of future browsers, a Netscape
spokesman said that it was too early to discuss feature sets of its
upcoming 5.0 product line. When it reported an $88 million loss for the fourth
quarter of 1997, Netscape halted its client-side Java development amid its
Company executives did say, however, that the Mozilla community is driving
the evolution of the source code faster than anyone expected.
For example, the World Wide Web
Consortium's James Clark
(no relation to Netscape cofounder Jim Clark) has added his XML parser, a piece of
software that interprets the eXtensible Markup Language, to the Mozilla
code base. By opening the code to anyone willing to participate according
to Netscape's licensing
rules, Netscape is turning its browser into a premier research and
development platform, according to one observer.
"Clark's move is a bellwether for what's going to happen," said Stephan
Somogyi of the technology consultancy Gyroscope. "It's the most successful
impromptu platform creation I've ever seen."
Netscape won't commit to any timetables, but acknowledges the need to do so
to appease its business customers.
"We will be announcing planned schedules," said John Gable, Communicator
product manager. "It will be the same clear picture that corporate buyers
have come to expect from us."