As developers comb through the beta release of Netscape Communications' (NSCP) Communicator source code released last week, the company wants to make another free software program one of its top priorities.
After speaking to a developer group last week, Netscape executive vice president of products Marc Andreessen confirmed today that Linux, a grassroots Unix-based operating system that runs on PCs, is likely to be just as important a platform for the company's SuiteSpot server software as other, more commercially accepted Unix systems.
What "Mozilla" (the nickname of the just-released source code for Communicator), Linux, and other "free software" programs have in common is openness. Their respective source codes, or underlying recipes, are published not only for all to see, but also to use, manipulate, change, and redistribute--sometimes free of charge, sometimes for a fee--with the knowledge that a wide community of developers is available to contribute to the effort.
Netscape is already working to write a version of SuiteSpot for OpenLinux, a flavor of Linux maintained and sold by Caldera that comes with technical support, application suites, and maintenance agreements.
Andreessen also pointed out today that Linux is the only Unix-based OS that Netscape has targeted with Mozilla. Windows NT, Windows 95/98, and newer versions of the Mac OS are the other targets, or "reference platforms," for Mozilla. Developers who want to build Mozilla-based applications for other operating systems are free to do so.
By mentioning Linux in the same breath as Solaris and other commercially proven operating systems, Netscape is doing two things: First, it is advancing its commitment to the free software or open source development model. Second, it lays a challenge to Microsoft's Windows NT.
Acknowledging it could no longer charge a fee and compete with Microsoft in the browser wars, Netscape decided earlier this year not only to give its browsers away, but also to let developers all over the world tinker with the code, help squash bugs, and come up with innovations.
Netscape's Linux push also challenges Microsoft's Windows NT, which runs on PCs as well and is making inroads into the once Unix-dominated workstation market. Whether a combination of Linux and Netscape browsers and servers is enough to undermine NT's spread in corporate America remains to be seen, however.
"Linux is great, but what kind of support is there?" asked Joel Graves, director of client solutions at the biopharmaceutical division of Chiron. "It makes managers nervous when there's no 1-800 number to call."
Caldera, for example, has worked to alleviate such corporate fears with maintenance agreements and for-fee support lines. Meanwhile, the grassroots users that make up the Linux backbone are more than happy with the support available in Usenet newsgroups and other community sites. In fact, one publication bestowed its 1997 "Best Technical Support Award" upon the general Linux community.
If commercial resellers of Linux can likewise convince corporate managers, the OS easily could challenge Windows NT in the lower-end server market, Graves said.
Because anyone can download and use Linux for free, it's difficult to determine an exact number of users. Its inventor Linus Torvalds recently estimated the number to be 5 million.
Netscape's Andreessen said he will most likely outline Netscape's Linux strategy in his keynote at next week's Web.Builder conference in San Francisco.