Mozilla Charts an Independent Course

 
 
By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2003-10-13
 
 
 

Mozilla Charts an Independent Course


Mozilla, the open source Web browser project recently freed from its corporate creator, wants to become more than a techies tool. It wants to become part of a regular users online surfing.

Now known as the Mozilla Foundation after splitting from America Online Inc.s Netscape Communications subsidiary in July, the project is turning its focus to the end user after five years as strictly a development organization. Starting this month, end users and enterprises can expect to see the first signs of that shift. Mozilla is preparing greater user support, a set of new releases and greater enterprise outreach.

"Because there was no organizational locus before, companies and commercial enterprises that were interested in the technology went to Netscape," said Mitchell Baker, Mozilla Foundation president. "Thats us now. We have both the freedom and the tools for people to actually come to us and talk about the technology."

Even with its new ambitions, Mozilla is competing in a market where Microsoft Corp. commands a 95.4 percent share with its Internet Explorer browser. It remains to be seen how much of a dent Mozilla can make in that dominance. Mozilla, the third most popular browser, holds a 1.6 percent share of global users, according to Web analytics vendor OneStat.com.

"Its very unlikely that Mozilla is going to make any inroads at this point," said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research, in New York. "From the end user perspective, the browser is just a function and not something they think about anymore."

But Mozilla is pushing ahead undeterred. This month, the project expects to release the latest version of its namesake application suite, Mozilla 1.5, which went into beta in late August. New versions of the stand-alone Firebird browser (version 0.7) and Thunderbird e-mail application (version 0.3) should follow soon after, Baker said.

The upgrades promise improvements in performance, stability and standards support. The application suite itself—which includes Mail/News for e-mail and newsgroups, Composer for Web-page creation and ChatZilla for Internet Relay Chat—will see a spell check for Mail/News and Composer, support for printing-attachment lists in Mail/News and an overhaul of ChatZilla in the 1.5 release.

But these features also mark Mozillas first major upgrade since becoming independent. AOL in July laid off about 50 Netscape developers while it split off Mozilla with a pledge of $2 million to help it out.

Analysts and industry observers speculate that AOLs move also marked the end of Netscapes development work since the Mozilla teams open-source efforts also fueled Netscapes browser development. AOL also in May reached a settlement with Microsoft over a private antitrust lawsuit, in which it received a seven-year license to use IE. AOL officials would not return multiple phones calls over the past month seeking comment.

Some of the final ties to Netscape were cut at the end of September. The last of the Mozilla servers that run the project, such as the mozilla.org Web site, its development tools and Bugzilla bug tracking system, were transferred to the foundation from Netscape. A transition team of three that remained at Netscape also is moving to Mozilla, Baker said. The foundation is planning to have a total of 10 to 12 staff with about eight in place so far and is working on establishing a headquarter location.

Mozilla Focuses on Users


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Getting the word out about Mozilla will cost money. As an independent organization, the Mozilla Foundation will need to raise more of it to meet its goal of reaching regular end users and enterprises through marketing. Along with $2 million from AOL, Mozilla also is seeking donations now that it is a non-profit. The addition of more formal support also will bring a new revenue source, Baker said.

"Theres not just a focus on the user, but a focus on generating revenue," Baker said. "We want to sustain ourselves."

A key for Mozilla to reach more end users, especially consumers, are the stand-alone browser and e-mail applications now in pre-1.0 releases, Baker said. They are designed more as products rather than as development technology as with the namesake suite.

"Mozilla development in past was designed for other commercial entities like Netscape to make end user products," Baker said. "So were designing these so that we can ship them to the general consumer, and theyll make sense as products as well."

To attract enterprise, Mozilla first wants to capitalize on organizations that have been using the Netscape browser, last released as version 7.1. Mozilla is planning greater outreach to enterprises, planning to seek advice on the types of features and changes companies would like to see in Mozilla. Adding greater support options also will be an important push, Baker said.

With the Mozilla 1.5 release, the foundation is planning to launch telephone end-user support. It will be offered through DecisionOnce, of Frazer, Pa., and cost $39.95 per incident. Mozilla also is planning to offer e-mail support, but a vendor has not been selected.

Such support is an important step to attract enterprise users, IT managers say, but end users can make it tough, even when IT is ready to push an alternative to IE. Dennis Barr, IT manager for civil engineering firm Larkin Group Inc., is an avid Mozilla user himself both at home and work, but he has had no luck convincing users within the company to switch.

Even when he had convinced a pool of end users to give Mozilla a try, they ultimately go back to using the IE browser that is so prevalent on the Windows desktop.

"Maybe the geek quotient isnt high enough within our company and with our individual users," Barr said. "I would love to be able to convince my organization to standardize on Mozilla, but it just hasnt happened."

Where he expects Mozilla to have better luck is within companies with more significant use of Linux and other operating systems. Those companies need to a cross-platform browser, he said. Mozilla supports Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

The new foundation, though, has no illusion that it will grab a big share of the consumer or even enterprise space, but Baker says the project sees an opening for more competition in the market and is ready to seize it.

"The key goal of the Mozilla project has been an open Web," she said. "Were not needing to get 60, 70 or 80 percent market share to be successful. Our market-share goal is enough to have a viable Web that remains standards focused and in which consumers can manipulate their data without going through the business plan of one or two vendors."

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