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Netscape mulls small browser

The release of the Communicator source code could lead to a significantly smaller Netscape browser.

    The release of the Communicator source code may not only let a thousand browsers bloom, but it also could make Netscape Communications' own browser significantly smaller.

    The company currently makes Communicator, a 16 MB suite of Internet software that includes the Navigator browser, a word processor, an email client, and a newsgroup reader. For users who don't want to use so much stuff or spend hours downloading it over dial-up connections, Netscape also offers a standalone Navigator that weighs in at 8 MB.

    But the underlying code base of Netscape's browsers is now open to the public to peruse and help develop.

    This "open source" development gives Netscape a wide range of developers poring over and adding to its code. Those developers also may create their own programs based on the code. Netscape in turn will use the constantly evolving code as the base for its own browsers, branded with the famous "N" logo.

    The code, nicknamed Mozilla, can evolve in many ways, but with its modular design--meaning the instructions are broken into discrete parts that serve as building blocks--it is possible that the development community will push Mozilla away from the "browser bloat" currently affecting Netscape's and Microsoft's products (the smallest version of Internet Explorer is a 13 MB download) and toward a leaner, more efficient paradigm.

    One Netscape engineer Source code for the masses yesterday said his "blue-sky" goal is for the Mozilla project to produce a basic browser under 1 MB that has the ability to read at least 95 percent of all Web pages. On the other hand, the company doesn't want to produce a Netscape-branded product that sacrifices the features users have come to expect.

    "You should be able to browse as much of the Web as you can now and more, and it should be very easy to download and upgrade," said Netscape principal engineer R.V. Guha. "Our design goals [for the Netscape-branded browsers] are to solve both those issues."

    Keep up with new features and get smaller? Netscape hopes that the Mozilla community at large will help solve that dilemma. Given that alternative browsers such as the 1.2 MB Opera (which sacrifices certain features such as Java for a smaller size and faster performance) have galvanized interest, it seems likely that something similar based on the Mozilla code--be it from Netscape or from a third-party Mozilla licensee--is not too far off.

    "It would be a great product for a lot of people who just like to surf and are constrained by limited bandwidth connections," said John Robb, principal of analyst firm Gomez Advisors.

    Furthermore, Netscape doesn't have to spend as much money on development costs now that it has a little help from its hacker friends, Robb said.

    "Two months ago, Netscape didn't have enough internal resources to take on different product niches," he said. "Now they can take a whack at a specific target niche, then let the community take it the rest of the way."

    Because the Mozilla source code is available for anyone to download, it legally can't contain some of the underlying technology--Java and encryption, for example--standard to the two big browsers today. But such technology is vital to Web use (especially encryption to conduct online transactions), so Netscape will have to add them back in on top of the source code when it releases future versions of its branded browser.

    When asked if Netscape might leave Java out of future browsers, a Netscape spokesman said that it was too early to discuss feature sets of its upcoming 5.0 product line. When it reported an $88 million loss for the fourth quarter of 1997, Netscape halted its client-side Java development amid its first-ever layoffs.

    Company executives did say, however, that the Mozilla community is driving the evolution of the source code faster than anyone expected.

    For example, the World Wide Web Consortium's James Clark (no relation to Netscape cofounder Jim Clark) has added his XML parser, a piece of software that interprets the eXtensible Markup Language, to the Mozilla code base. By opening the code to anyone willing to participate according to Netscape's licensing rules, Netscape is turning its browser into a premier research and development platform, according to one observer.

    "Clark's move is a bellwether for what's going to happen," said Stephan Somogyi of the technology consultancy Gyroscope. "It's the most successful impromptu platform creation I've ever seen."

    Netscape won't commit to any timetables, but acknowledges the need to do so to appease its business customers.

    "We will be announcing planned schedules," said John Gable, Communicator product manager. "It will be the same clear picture that corporate buyers have come to expect from us."