Netscape ups the ante in the browser war

By releasing the source code for future versions of its Navigator, the embattled company has rewritten the rules for commercial software development. Jason Cranford Teague reports.
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The Independent Culture
A little over two months ago, Netscape Communications Corporation shocked the online world by announcing that it would not only be releasing its basic user agent (better know as a Web browser) free to the public, but it would also be providing the source code for future browsers free to anyone agreeing to follow an open licensing agreement.

Last week, after an online public discussion over the exact nature of the licensing agreement that perspective developers would have to sign, Netscape delivered on its promise and brought the source code out of the "Cathedral" and into the "Bazaar".

Following the example set by other popular freeware programmes such as Linux and Apache, on 31 March Netscape announced that the source code for version 5.0 of Netscape Communicator was no longer a trade secret, like most commercially available software, unveiling their open source strategy for sharing the code. Although this is not the actual web browser itself, it is the code that Netscape will be using to create future versions of its Navigator.

According to Netscape, it is doing this for two reasons. It said in a statement: "First, we believe that an open source code development process will result in a better product. By leveraging the creative efforts of developers from both outside and within Netscape, we can create a higher- quality, more full-featured Communicator product.

"Second, by releasing the source code, we will encourage developers ... to use Netscape technology in their own products. Through this process, Netscape client technology will become accessible to more end users."

Translation: Netscape gets free development and more people will have a vested interest in using its product.

But the advantages of this arrangement work both ways. By giving developers the keys to the code castle, Netscape allows savvy coders to fix any bugs in the Netscape code without the need to wait for Netscape to find the problem itself and release a fix. Further, developers can now tailor the browser to their needs or create custom applications that work directly with Netscape.

Netscape is releasing the code under two different license types, the Netscape Public License (NPL) for developers wishing to make changes to the code, and the Mozilla Public License (MozPL) for anyone wishing simply to add new code. The code will be available in C and C++, the standard programming language for most modern software, and will be available from the newly created Mozilla Web site (http://www.mozilla.org) for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

In addition to providing the code and accepting the various license agreements, the Mozilla Web site will provide an open forum for what Netscape hopes will become a new browser development community. The site will collect code changes made by the developer community and give bug reports as well as provide a discussion group for developers.

Netscape has also retooled its DevEdge Online Web site (http://developer.netscape.com) to help not only programmers, but any Web developer take advantage of the changes coming with Netscape 5.0.

Although Netscape has yet to announce a release date for the new 5.0 browser, or, for that matter, for the first public beta release, it has made clear that it will continue to produce and release improvements to its version 4.x browser during Netscape 5.0's development. Despite the fact that custom versions of Navigator will be available from parties other than Netscape, after Navigator 5.0's release, Netscape will periodically release officially sanctioned updates that collect together the best ideas from the independent developer community.

The new browser's features, code named "Aurora," will include a new interface with ways to structure and deploy bookmarks as well as providing automatically generated site maps.

Another new feature being developed will be of interest to Netscape's main browser rival, Microsoft. Netscape will now allow users to "access and organise all kinds of information, not just Web pages, [including] word processing documents, other local files and shared documents from one central location". Will this start to take the place of the operating system? Microsoft has been relatively quiet about the announcement, and has not announced any plans to follow Netscape's lead by releasing its own browser's source code.

Other hurdles still daunt Netscape's dream of realising a truly open browser architecture. Many developer's remain sceptical as to whether Netscape can hold together a browser now open to all comers. One Internet developer commented: "I think at first this will seem to be some great Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest browser war" where all browsers will have to move to the World Wide Web Consortium's standard or be marginalised into obscurity. In addition, Netscape has yet to address the risk of the development of trojan horse or other harmful versions of the Navigator browser.

But whatever the outcome, and whatever the reaction from Microsoft, there is little question that Netscape has upped the ante in the browser war and that commercial software will never be the same again.

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