Netscape sets source code free

After three months of anticipation, Netscape Communications releases the source code for its Communicator suite.

Janet Kornblum
4 min read
Jim Barksdale, Pdt. Netscape On April 24th 1998 In France .

Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale took this photo in France a month after the company released source code for its Communicator suite.

Alain BUU

After three months of anticipation, Netscape Communications today finally released the source code for its Communicator suite.

Netscape this morning unveiled the much-anticipated release with a teleconference featuring breathy executive statements touting the significance of the move. The company actually posted the approximately 8 megabytes of compressed Communicator 5.0 code at 10 a.m. PT to Mozilla.org, the site Netscape has set up to be the central clearinghouse for source code-related information.

By 10:30 a.m., some had already downloaded the file, the underlying skeleton of the next generation of Netscape's Communicator 5.0 suite. The end-user Netscape-branded version, complete with code created by the masses, is due out by the end of the year, executives said today. The move to release the code has caused a significant buzz ever since it was announced in January.

Calling the announcement "historic" Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale said it would boost the company's business and allow it to tap into a virtually unlimited developer talent pool for the next-generation browsers.

"We think this is up there in terms of its unprecedented nature and importance with the original Netscape takeover of the Web when we released the first Netscape Navigator in December 1994," he said. "We think it is going to change the way people actually develop these products dramatically for many, many years to come. This will be a historic day in that chain of events."

Developers are being given an open license in exchange for an agreement to post their modifications of the code on Mozilla.org.

Netscape then will add the best third-party enhancements to its own branded versions of the product.

Netscape is hoping that the giveaway, coupled with free copies of standard versions of Communicator and Navigator, will help it boost its browser market share along with sales of its server software and traffic to its Netcenter site, which it is building up to compete as an onramp to the Internet.

By opening up the code to the masses, Netscape has found a way to involve the Net community in its own development process, a move that executives think will pay off not only in innovations to its browser, great publicity for its products, and frequent trips to its site, but also in a less tangible commodity: mind share.

"It's no longer Netscape alone, pushing the client software forward, but now it's really the whole Net," said Bob Lisbonne, Netscape's senior vice president for client products. "For Netscape, this gives us a way to engage the creative, innovative abilities of literally orders of magnitude more people than we could ever--really any commercial software company could ever--afford to just put on their payroll."

And therein lies the danger, said Netscape's arch rival Microsoft.

The fact that anyone can develop add-ons and independent software for Netscape's browser will make it hard to control quality, said Craig Beilinson, product manager for Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

"This unpaid, uncredited army of developers is out there," he said. "They're going to start to write code and turn it in to Netscape. Netscape has to spend tremendous time testing that code, choosing what features get in."

And once it comes out, the Netscape-branded versions of Navigator could conflict with the versions that independent companies have developed based on the free source code, he said.

Beilinson said Microsoft maintains control over IE by releasing whole components of its browser for developers to use. "You can drag and drop pieces of Internet Explorer into...applications. We've been providing that capability for two years with IE so companies can make new browsers and add new features. We think [Netscape is] catching up." "We're giving developers a finely tuned engine that we can add features to and Netscape is giving it to them in raw parts," he said. "It is a good thing that both companies are now finally trying to spur some innovation in the [independent software vendor] and developer market."

Beilinson also criticized Netscape for announcing a delivery date for Navigator 5.0 at the end of the year, later than earlier anticipated. But he would not provide a date or even a time frame for when Microsoft would release the 5.0 version of its browser.

Until now, people who wanted to develop utilities for the browser often had to spend painstaking hours mapping out the source code to develop for it.

The release of the free code will reduce jobs that once took days--even months--to a matter of minutes.

Developers will use the code to create any number of features to enhance and customize the browser for their own purposes.

For instance, companies that want to develop new ways to block Web advertisements will have the raw materials with which to do so.

Although the code certainly is not intended for the average Netizen, end users are likely to see the difference with what some say will be the "explosion" of development.

For instance, Netscape's Lisbonne envisioned special browsers aimed at children or international markets.

While many of the browser's features will be developed by outsiders, the next version will include several Netscape features, including browsing tools based on Resource Description Framework, which allow improved searching and navigation, and support for XML (eXtensible Markup Language), according to Netscape.

Netscape is hosting a Mozilla.org party in San Francisco tomorrow. The party is open to "anyone who cares about Open Source," states a party FAQ. "Open Source, Open Party, get it?"

Editors' note, Jan. 24, 2018:  Not everything ages well on the internet. This story had a number of broken links, and the original photo of Jim Barksdale wasn't rendering well. We've cleaned up the links and swapped in a better photo of Barksdale from that era.

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET's newsstand edition.

Special Reports: CNET's in-depth features in one place.