By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
Netscape Communications made headlines all over the world when it decided to give away its Web browser a year and a half ago. That was good news. But the free browser is only half the story.
What's really important is that Netscape also decided to give away the keys to the kingdom – the "source code" that its Web browser is based on. In effect, Netscape turned its project of creating a newer Web browser – a successor to Netscape Navigator and Communicator – into a community effort, in which literally everybody who has any experience writing software is welcome to help out. (All you need is someone to vouch for you and you can join the team.)
The fruit of this labor has yet to be harvested, although you can download and try out an interim browser that's been made available for testing and comment. (It's not a finished product and is full of bugs, so don't touch it unless you understand the importance of this kind of testing and are willing to help out.)
The project is being run by "mozilla.org," a group that was created to coordinate the programming and testing. You can find out more by visiting the home site, http://www.mozilla.org/.
The new Web browser and its related programs, such as a newsgroup reader and an e-mail program, will not be called Netscape Navigator or Netscape Communicator. The new browser might not even be called Mozilla. (It's the name Netscape employees gave to their original browser years ago, but the folks who loaned money to the struggling company told them the name had to go.)
What sets Mozilla apart from, say, Microsoft Internet Explorer or even Netscape Navigator is the simple matter of ownership. Microsoft owns the program code for Internet Explorer, and no one who is not paid by Microsoft is able to write any of the program code for Internet Explorer. That's the normal way commercial software is done. Likewise, Netscape Navigator and Communicator are handled the same way: Netscape employs programmers who write the code.
Mozilla's code is being written by volunteers and enthusiasts. Netscape employees are helping out – I suspect they're helping out a lot – but they're only part of the project. The browser and all its related programs will be totally free when they are done.
You might think this is a dumb idea, and you might also wonder how anything worth using could ever come out of a ragtag project like this.
But in fact this method, loosely called "open source," has proven itself as the best way to get good software written in a hurry. It is also one of the best ways to get good software written when you're not in a hurry.
The open-source system works like this: The source code, which is normally kept hidden away so competitors can't see it, is an open book; everyone can see it and check it out. Because there are no secrets, there is nothing to hide, and things get done a lot faster. Because the programmers on an open-source project are located all over the world, there's always someone working on the project at any time, night or day. And because you're not likely to be working on a particular open-source program unless you're enthusiastic – don't forget, no one is paid for this – you're probably going to help fix any bugs or errors you find.
Contrast that to a typical commercial setting, in which programmers work normal hours and often ignore bugs because no one wants to hold up a project, and you can see how open-source projects can produce programs that work better and are more reliable than commercial programs.
The best evidence of the success of open-source software is the Linux operating system, which is far more flexible and much more stable than Windows while taking up less memory. Bugs found in Linux usually are fixed the same day they are discovered, and features are added almost by the hour.
Another advantage that open-source projects have can be seen in Mozilla. The browser that comes out of this project won't be a Windows browser or a Mac browser. It will be available for dozens of different operating systems. Companies such as Microsoft that make commercial software don't create a lot of versions of their programs because it's too much trouble and takes too much time – for commercial programmers, that is.
For the volunteers who are helping the Mozilla project, it's just one more challenge.