When the Mozilla Foundation recently announced its one-year anniversary, I thought, “Wait a minute! Hasnt Mozilla been around for many years?” I then realized that the anniversary referred not to the Mozilla browser but to when the browser was freed from its corporate entanglements with Netscape/AOL and the Mozilla Foundation itself was formed as an independent entity. As companies from Sun to even Microsoft think about open-sourcing some of their products, they would do well to remember Mozillas history and learn from its successes and mistakes.
Recent weeks have seen some major advancements for the Mozilla browser, as the latest security hole in Microsofts aging Internet Explorer became the straw that broke the camels back for many users.
Given that these users turned more often than not to Mozilla, it seems like a good time to look at the history of the Mozilla project, one of the most significant technologies to make the transition from proprietary commercial product to open source.
In 1998, in what was rightly seen as an act of desperation, Netscape announced that it would open-source its Navigator browser technology as the Mozilla project. However, Navigator itself never did go open source—the Netscape developers leading the Mozilla project determined that Navigators bloated code would make it impossible for them to make necessary advancements.
The developers thus decided to scrap the Navigator code and build a Mozilla browser from scratch. This was the right move as far as the browser was concerned, but it sounded the death knell for Netscape.
The Mozilla project saw a delay of two years, during which Netscape made mistake after mistake. One of the biggest was that the Mozilla project was never fully freed from Netscape. Most of the developers and support for the project came from Netscape, so the Mozilla developers, not surprisingly, were sensitive to Netscapes wishes. Unfortunately, these wishes served to set back the adoption and spread of the Mozilla browser by at least two more years.
Probably the most damaging decision Netscape made was to target Mozilla at developers and the next-generation Netscape browser suite at users, with the idea that advances made to Mozilla would eventually make their way into the suite. This turned users off to Mozilla even though it was functionally superior to its sister product.
Netscape then used early Mozilla code in its Netscape 6.0 browser. This proved to be a disaster (we called 6.0 “buggy and slow” in a review) that mainly served to cement IEs place at the top of the browser chain.
Luckily, Mozilla project developers remained dedicated to making the best browser possible and taking their time to do it right. And when Mozilla 1.0 was finally released in 2002, it immediately jumped to the top of the browser hill, thanks to its quality and features.
It also quickly became obvious that Mozilla was superior to the Netscape browser that was using its code base— the Netscape browser ignored many of the Mozilla features that users wanted while adding lots of annoying stuff that mainly served to push products from AOL (which had acquired Netscape during the height of this lunacy).
Now we can finally see what the Mozilla developers can do when working without the Netscape/AOL chains that bound them. Watching the major strides that the Mozilla Foundation has made with Mozilla, the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird mail client, Im left to wonder what would have happened if the developers had had this freedom for the last four years instead of one. The browser market might look a lot different than it does now.
So congratulations to Mozilla, which has proved that an open-source project can rise above lots of boneheaded moves. But if companies truly want their open-source projects to succeed, theyll have a lot easier time if they just let the developers do their jobs.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.