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Developers flock to Netscape code

Thousands of developers have downloaded the newly freed source code for the Communicator suite, reminding some of the early spirit of the Net.

Executives at Netscape Communications (NSCP) figured that 5,000 people would download the free Communicator 5.0 source code. In the very first day, 4,500 people downloaded the code from the Netscape site--and that doesn't count the downloads from roughly 100 mirror sites.

Within 48 hours of the release, Netscape changed the code based on early feedback.

Usually when a company releases a major product, Source code for the masses executives liberally pepper their conversation with hyperbole. But when Netscape executives use words such as "phenomenal," "extraordinary," and "mind-blowing," they appear to have the backing of the developer community.

When the developers talk about the browser code, being referred to as Mozilla (the site Netscape set up to be the clearinghouse for discussion of the code), they don't just refer to the actual recipe.

They speak of bigger concepts such as sharing, bravery, and community--elements that hearken back to the early days of the Internet, when efforts were largely collective and things were run by a cadre of hard-working programmers who ruled by what is often referred to as "rough consensus."

"Originally, the World Wide Web was almost entirely free software," said developer Alan Shutko in an email interview. "This triggered lots of good ideas, and was the reason that it took off. But recently, [Netscape's chief rival] Microsoft and Netscape have been locked in a browser war, which has only given us buggy browsers. Now there will be less of a stress on Netscape employees and it will be easier to advance the technology because there will be so many people helping."

The old days of sharing also worked well, he added, because it "helped gather ideas from many different people so that we had the best of all possible worlds."

Like a lot of programmers, Shutko downloaded the Communicator code to learn, to help debug it, and to work on building applications that would work with it.

But it's easy to get the sense that the process of downloading and reading it is about more than numbers. "It'll also be quite valuable to read the source, simply to see the issues involved in this kind of application," Shutko said.

"The more source that's out there to read, the better programmers can become," he said. "It's like literature: You will have a hard time being a good writer unless you've read a lot of books. But we expect programmers to be good programmers without seeing many different approaches to systems and problems. Netscape's source release will help that."

Vidar Hokstad, a programmer living in Norway, said he downloaded it "about one minute after the release" and then continued to work on it for the rest of the night. He was immediately impressed.

"Netscape's code is surprisingly clean for a proprietary product," he said. "Most modules are quite easy to understand. I've gotten quite a lot of respect for Netscape's developers after the release."

His motivation for downloading? "One of them is curiosity," he admitted. "But it's also practical. There's lots of features I want that I couldn't have before, and lots of bugs that I've seen that haven't been fixed. Now I can fix it myself."

Just as importantly for Hokstad, downloading the code and then working in it is "a sign of support to Netscape. They gave it to us. It's a way of telling them that we care.

"I suspect many people downloaded it just to play around with it a bit, and at the same time put the message through that the interest is there," he added.