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AOL, Mozilla lose key evangelist

Longtime Netscape client engineer and Mozilla.org pioneer Jamie Zawinski resigns and posts a bitter farewell, just as Mozilla.org celebrates its first anniversary.

As Mozilla.org gathers to observe its first anniversary at an elaborate celebration tonight, a founding member has resigned with a blistering critique of the organization.

As reported, longtime Netscape client engineer and Mozilla.org pioneer and evangelist Jamie Zawinski handed in his resignation today, and subsequently took to the Web to explain his decision in terms harshly critical of AOL, Netscape, and Mozilla.org--not to mention his own role.

"For whatever reason, Source code for the masses the project was not adopted by the outside," Zawinski wrote in his "resignation and postmortem."

"In my humble but correct opinion, we should have shipped Netscape Navigator 5.0 no later than six months after the source code was released," he continued. "But we [the Mozilla.org group] couldn't figure out a way to make that happen. I accept my share of responsibility for this, and consider this a personal failure."

Zawinski's surprise move comes as a blow to Netscape's new owner, America Online, which has so far warded off any high-profile defections from the vital engineering and development divisions of Netscape, which AOL acquired last month.

AOL said it regretted Zawinksi's resignation.

"We're very sorry to see him go," said Chris Saito, director of client product marketing for AOL's Netscape division. "Jamie has made some great contributions to Mozilla.org and helped us get where we are today.

"But I want to highlight that Mozilla.org will continue," Saito said. "Mozilla is bigger than any one person or any one company. It's comprised of hundreds of developers on the Web, and some at Netscape. We hope that Jamie continues to contribute to Mozilla.org."

Mozilla.org was set up by Netscape in January 1998 to shepherd the open source development of its Communicator browser code. Netscape decided to publish the source code to its browser and give the product away free of charge after Microsoft made rapid and significant inroads into its once-monolithic market share.

Zawinski has done more than contribute code to Netscape's open source effort. He was the original Mozilla.org evangelist, and spent much of his time between the group's January 1998 formation and the April 1 source code release explaining the open source model to Netscape management and staff.

In an open source development model, the source code to a piece of software is made publicly available. Developers volunteer their labor and anyone can use the resulting product under the terms of a public license.

Zawinski also initially rallied the dubious Mozilla.org troops when the acquisition by AOL was first announced. Ironically, he then sounded the same theme that Saito and others are sounding now about his departure: That the Mozilla public license ensures that the open source project will outlast any one person or firm.

Zawinski made only limited references to AOL in his resignation manifesto, but published another page excoriating AOL for practicing censorship on the Internet.

"AOL is about centralization and control of content," Zawinski wrote in a page dated March 31. "Everything that is good about the Internet, everything that differentiates it from television, is about empowerment of the individual. I don't want to be a part of an effort that could result in the elimination of all that."

Zawinski has not refrained from publicly criticizing his employer in the past, and renewed those criticisms today.

"Netscape has been a great disappointment to me for quite some time," Zawinski wrote, citing the company's growth from an scrappy Internet pioneer to a large, more deliberative firm. "The more people involved, the slower and stupider their union is," he continued.

Zawinski's departure and criticisms aside, Mozillans gathering tonight for a party in San Francisco's nightclub-studded South of Market district will have much to celebrate. They also have their work cut out for them once the last of the champagne is metabolized.

Mozilla on its first birthday has yet to provide its parent Netscape with a final release product, and rival Microsoft's newly released Internet Explorer browser, version 5.0, is way ahead of Netscape in standards support and componentization.

But Mozilla has made important strides in recent weeks toward its goal of helping AOL deliver a Netscape-branded public beta of Communicator Version 5.0 by July and shipping a product by year's end. Communicator Version 5.0 is expected to be both componentized and have superior standards support.

The most significant of these steps forward was Mozilla's release last month of the M3 build.

This milestone build is the first to bring together the core Gecko browsing engine, released last year in a developer preview; the browser user interface (UI); and the new Extensible User Interface Language (XUL, pronounced "zool") that lets developers customize the UI in a cross-platform language based on XML.

"The M3 version is where you can really start to see the open source effort start to pay off," said AOL's Saito.

Saito also pointed to the nascent but growing trend of other companies implementing Gecko into their products. Citec's DocZilla browser, which supports not only HTML and XML, but also XML's parent markup language Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), is one example.

Another sign of Mozilla's growth is the online news and discussion site, not affiliated with AOL, called MozillaZine.

One key to Mozilla's ongoing success is ramping up the pace of developer involvement. That will happen, Saito predicts, when AOL finally ships the Netscape-branded, Mozilla-built product.

"We've gotten really good contributions already," Saito said, citing XML inventor James Clark's XML parser, and a trove of 60 bug patches submitted by a single developer. "Interest is really building. But the most important thing that Netscape and Mozilla have to do is get the product out there. When people see it, that's when you'll really see the increase in development effort."

The lack of outside developer involvement was a key point in Zawinski's parting critique.

"The truth is that, by virtue of the fact that the contributors to the Mozilla project included about a hundred full-time Netscape developers, and about thirty part-time outsiders, the project still belonged wholly to Netscape," Zawinski wrote. "I've told people again and again that the Mozilla.org organization does not serve only the desires of the Netscape client engineering group, but rather, serves the desires of all contributors to the Mozilla project, no matter who they are...But the fact is, there has been very little contribution from people who don't work for Netscape, making the distinction somewhat academic."

Zawinski denied vehemently that the shortcomings of Mozilla.org were inherent in the open source model.

"My biggest fear, and part of the reason I stuck it out as long as I have, is that people will look at the failures of Mozilla.org as emblematic of open source in general," Zawinski wrote. "Let me assure you that whatever problems the Mozilla project is having are not because open source doesn't work.

"Open source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea. If there's a cautionary tale here, it is that you can't take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of 'open source,' and have everything magically work out. Software is hard. The issues aren't that simple."