Sun mulls open-source options for Netscape browser

Sun Microsystems ponders a change to the open-source development of the Netscape Communicator browser, according to a Sun executive.

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BURLINGAME, California--Sun Microsystems is pondering changing the open-source development of the Netscape Communicator browser, a Sun executive said today.

Mozilla.org has guided the open-source development of the Communicator browser code since Netscape Communications founded the group in January 1998. Now funded by America Online, the open-source effort has suffered from a lack of outside developer contributions, forcing Netscape engineers to do most of the development work for the forthcoming 5.0 version.

"I'm not sure Mozilla.org is working all that well," said Alan Baratz, president of Sun's Software Products and Platforms Division. "We're looking at what the options are."

Baratz, speaking at the Enterprise Outlook software conference here, touted Sun's Java standards process--and said that model is one of the options for the development of the Netscape browser.

Sun has gotten involved in reviewing Netscape's open-source development, he said, because of the company's partnership with AOL (known as the Sun-Netscape Alliance) in developing and marketing Netscape and Sun software.

Any of Sun's suggestions for Mozilla, if ever formally presented, would have to go through an approval process. The code has already been turned over to a public license. AOL would also likely need to approve any changes.

Whatever changes may be under consideration for Mozilla.org appear to be in the conceptual stage.

"We have heard no announcements internally or externally that there are changes in the works for Mozilla.org," said a Netscape spokesperson.

In his speech, Baratz said the Java Community Process was a collaborative process that can quickly produce high-quality Java specifications.

"We could move to a model like this," he said, referring to Sun's Java standards process. "[But] we don't have complete control of the process, but we're looking at our options."

Sun may wish to change Mozilla.org, but they could run into problems. The Mozilla code has already been released under the terms of the Mozilla Public License and the Netscape Public License.

Carl Oppendahl, an intellectual-property attorney at Oppendahl & Larson, said that whether the licensing model can be changed depends on the language of the previous agreement. "It could be yes. It could be no," he said.

Baratz said several technology companies--mostly software firms, but a couple of hardware firms--have contacted him in hopes of emulating the Java standards model with technology they created. He declined identify the companies.

Sun introduced the Java Community Process in December 1998 to address concerns that the company has too dominant a role in the development of new Java standards. Although outside companies now are allowed to lead development of new specifications, Sun still decides which standards to pursue, and which company will lead each effort.

Sun also changed its Java licensing model. Previously, firms interested in licensing the technology had to pay fees up front. Now companies are required only to pay royalites once they finish developing a product, Baratz said.

"As a result of these enhancements for evolving and licensing the technology, there's very little noise in the system that prices are too high," he said. "There are still noises that Sun has too much control. I would submit to you that it's a far more open process than any other company in our industry has deployed."

Baratz added that Communicator 5.0--which will ship in December--will be competitive with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, especially since AOL will bundle the browser on its software CDs.

"You'll see a really good product in December, an XML-based, solid product with a great interface to the Java Virtual Machine," he said. "December would be a good defining moment for competition in the browser space."

News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.