Freed I: Netscape/Mozilla

Since the rise of Linux, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the code of closed software ought to be published, in the way that Open Source programs are made freely available. Sometimes their clients will suggest it to a manufacturer of closed software, sometimes the manufacturers themselves become interested in the benefits to be gained from openness. In the late nineties, for instance, at the Microsoft monopoly trial in the US some people argued that the makers of Microsoft Office had an unfair advantage because, unlike their competitors, they had access to the source code for the underlying Windows operating system; and it was therefore demanded that the source code for Windows be made public. The Court, however, did not order this to be done.1 Latterly, however, originally closed programs are being made open, or "freed', with ever greater frequency, and now we'll take a look at some of those stories.

Netscape, familiar to all web surfers, was the first serious software to go from being a closed development model to being an Open Source project. This historic event in January 1998 played a part in the invention of the term "Open Source'.2 It is said that the managers at Netscape had read, among other things, Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar' and become convinced that the open development model might save Netscape from doom.

Although in many ways 1998 can be seen as the year in which Linux and the open development model really took off and entered the consciousness of the corporate world - which was much thanks to the process Netscape had begun - Netscape's decision wasn't really such a gift to the Open Source community as one might at first think. Microsoft's Internet Explorer had already taken the leading role in the browser wars and was also ahead of Netscape in quality. Also, Netscape seemed to become weaker with each version that was released. It wasn't long before the announcement that Netscape, the very company that had set off and embodied the Internet boom, had reached the point where it would be divided into parts. By the end of 1998, Sun and AOL had split up the remains between them. AOL took over the browser and the Open Source project called Mozilla. The Netscape company lived on as the greatest legend of the "new economy', but in reality it was just a shooting star - all but one of the four years of its business, that had promised so much, were in the red. And perhaps that is actually a good summation of the turn of the millennium's "new economy'.

After all the initial excitement, the Mozilla project proved, at least in part, to be a disappointment. It soon transpired that in the fight to beat Microsoft, Netscape's programmers had been pressed for time and had produced really confusing and low-quality code. In the first couple of years Mozilla was mostly a clean-up project. Finally, the Mozilla coders came to the conclusion that the easiest thing was really to simply rewrite the key part of the browser, the component that shows www pages. Not until this was done was there any sort of backbone to the project. In the end, Mozilla 1.0 was published four and a half years after the start of the project.

One of the leaders of the Mozilla project, Jamie Zawinski correctly observed that Open Source wasn't just "magic pixie dust', and he was right. There is no power in the world that can save a programming project that is all spaghetti code, rambling, and all else that is the consequence of less than top-quality programming. Although by now there are several really good versions of Mozilla available, and in particular the number of bugs has decreased dramatically since the days of Netscape, the slowness and its sprawling code was long a topic to which people kept returning. Possibly, it was in part due to a problem in the project's culture. Perhaps it carried a ballast of casual attitude to quality, inherited with the Netscape code.

The Firefox browser was separated from the Mozilla project, but was based on the same original code. However, a different set of people ran the Firefox project. The first official version, Firefox 1.0, was published in November 2004, and finally put an end to the slowness and other inherited problems. Like a phoenix, Firefox had risen from the ashes of old Netscape. Younger, more colourful and supporting a lot of new technologies, Firefox came to challenge the dinosaur Internet Explorer which latterly hadn't been moving forward.

From 1998 to 2004 was a long time in terms of the changes taking place in the IT business. However, we must remember that the Mozilla project had had other important goals - goals that had been reached a lot earlier. Although in the end Microsoft took more than 90 per cent of the browser market - which, at the time of writing, it still holds - the Mozilla project by its mere existence guaranteed that the Web didn't become Microsoft's exclusive property. The existence of more than one browser ensures that home-page makers - at least those who know what they're doing - stick to common standards, which denies Microsoft both complete monopoly and the opportunity to dictate development.

Also, in the shape of Firefox, the Mozilla project finally achieved its proper goal: it became the best browser in the world, better and faster than its competition. If you believe the statistics, Mozilla and Firefox are still marginal in the browser market - though Firefox is steadily climbing the charts - but for the first time in a long while Internet Explorer is lagging behind its three biggest competitors, technically.3 Although not much is left of the original Netscape browser, there is good reason to be grateful to those who set the Mozilla project in motion. The community that has grown up around Mozilla has proved stronger than the substandard spaghetti code that it inherited. The Mozilla project has given the Open Source community far more than the browser called Mozilla. For instance, the Bugzilla tool, used in almost all Open Source programming projects, is an offshoot of Mozilla, and is also used by many software companies in the production of closed programs.

Finally, it has to be said that an historical wheel has come full circle with Mozilla. The Netscape browser was based on the Mosaic browser originally developed in the academic environment of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).4 When the code for Netscape was released under the Mozilla project, it can be said to have returned to its roots. And actually Mozilla's Web browser is only part of a bigger story: the World Wide Web technology was originally developed in the CERN laboratory, from which is was given to the world, open and free. And before the Web was invented, the entire Internet and all its technologies and standards had evolved in the same way, in the community of Unix hackers, in accordance with the principles of openness. When open Apache became the most common Web server, closed Netscape was actually a tiny freak in an open world - which makes Mozilla the prodigal son returned.

Verdict: The opening of the Netscape code began the popularizing of the Open Source movement, making it a viable alternative for other companies too. Open Source was a kind of defence mechanism for Netscape, for it to make a stand against Microsoft's crushing ascendancy, and in that the strategy worked. Technically, however, the Mozilla project faced enormous challenges. Many years of uncontrolled growth of spaghetti code and the problems that caused didn't magically evaporate under the influence of openness - sorting out the problems took much longer than anyone could have foreseen.

  • 1Soon after George W. Bush came to power the trial was brought to a speedy end by the Court expediently finding Microsoft guilty of abusing its monopolistic position, but imposing no sanctions.
  • 2Prior to this, the only term used was "Free Software'.
  • 3In addition to the Mozilla family (Mozilla and its derivatives Netscape, Firefox, Galeon, etc.), Internet Explorer has two other competitors in the closed Opera and the open Konqueror, which is also the basis for Apple's new browser Safari.
  • 4The same is true for the closed Internet Explorer.
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