Give the source code away and get the Net to go to work for you

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The Independent Culture
Jason Cranford Teague sees the creative logic in Netscape's decision to give its `secret recipe' to thousands of Internet programmers.

In a move likely to turn the Internet upside down, Netscape announced last Thursday that it would not only be providing its popular browser, Navigator, free of charge to all users, but that the source code of future versions of the browser will be made available for free licensing over the Internet. The source code for Navigator 5.0 will be made available with the program's release sometime this spring.

The first announcement, that the browser would be made free to all takers, is hardly surprising in light of the erosion of Navigator's once unquestioned market share majority by Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer has been free of charge to private users, and licensed free for redistribution, for over a year and a half. This despite some intrusive licensing policies which have recently caught the attention of various parties including the US Department of Justice.

However, the news that Netscape would release the source code it uses to create its most popular product surprised and shocked many on the Web. The source code of a program is the "secret recipe" used to create the final executable program. Companies will usually guard their source code tighter than the Crown Jewels. It is their golden fleece and if rivals get hold of it, they also have their secrets. But Netscape's move, although unheard of in the world of commercial software, is not unprecedented on the Internet.

Netscape is following a strategy that has proved successful for non-commercial software, or freeware, such as Linux, a UNIX-based operating system, and Apache, the most popular server software being used on the Web. Both Linux and Apache are not only available free of charge, but their code is freely available and widely distributed, allowing anyone with the know-how to fix bugs, import it to other systems and make other improvements. According to Netscape, following this model "will enable Netscape to harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet by incorporating their best enhancements into future versions of Netscape's software".

In effect, Netscape will have the benefit of numerous minds all working to improve their product but without the need to put all of these people on the payroll. The advantage is felt by both sides, though. Developers can fix or change Netscape to suit their individual needs without having to wait for updates or patches, thus giving them a personal stake in the success of Navigator as a whole.

Richard Hall, of Netscape's DevEdg Internet development Web site, says developers are "reeling with delight with the news". The code will be made available through DevEdge.

However, last week's announcement does beg several questions that Netscape will have to address in the coming weeks. For instance, how would Netscape deal with the thousands of non-compatible, mutated versions of Navigator which might crop up all over the Web? Or, worse yet, what is the possibility of Trojan-horse Navigators being distributed that might maliciously damage machines or contain security holes?

How this will effect Netscape's falling market share and whether Microsoft will now be forced to follow its lead remains to be seen, but one thing is already clear: computers are changing the way commercial products are being developed. Can you imagine the Ford Motor Company inviting outside mechanics to suggest, and, what's more, make improvements to its cars? Probably easier than imagining them giving the cars away for free.

mshadow@dircon.co.uk

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