Mozilla Charts an Independent Course

The open-source project, after being split from Netscape, now takes aim at attracting end users and enterprise customers. Version 1.5 upgrade due this month.

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

"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 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.