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Opinion: Mozilla's Open Source Success

by CHRIS NELSON | Mozilla has had some hard times recently. First came the fateful decision to switch to an entirely new layout engine, and as a consequence develop an entirely new user interface. Next came Jamie Zawinski's vocal resignation. His carefree opinions caused a stir in the community, and have given doomsayers (like the folks at CNet) ample opportunity to pounce. Mozilla is in peril, they say; what does it mean for the Open Source movement?

But they have gotten it all wrong. Mozilla has been an Open Source success, but on its own terms. Mozilla *was* a first in the industry, and it is wrong to judge it by the success of previous Open Source efforts.

Mozilla is different from other Open Source projects for a number of reasons, but primarily because Mozilla was essentially "outed" into the Open Source community from a private, proprietary enterprise. Netscape still retains a strong interest in Mozilla's development (both in terms of functionality and schedule). The code is free, but it is strongly guided by a coherent development process and schedule (something that cannot be said for other Open Source efforts).

How can Open Source fit into such a novel structure? Quite well, it would seem. However, I think that a myth about Open Source needs to be dispelled. That is the myth of the "Army of Developers". Open Source projects are supposedly only truly Open Source when legions of volunteer coders pick up the banner and lead the code into free new territory. This myth has led people to believe that Mozilla's Open Source movement is not a success. But this rule only applies to software that has no corporate backing. Linux, the GIMP, Enlightenment, and other Open Source efforts all require developing legions to succeed. As corporations like IBM, Red Hat, Dell and Compaq start making significant contributions to Linux, the legion of volunteers will start to shrink. When device manufacturers start developing device drivers for Linux, fewer volunteers will aid the Linux effort. Why? Because for many coders, aiding the coding of Linux allowed them to get the functionality they needed. They focused on fulfilling their needs (which more often than not were shared by a large subsection of the Linux community). When they're no longer needed to get video cards running, or SCSI devices functioning, their necessity is obviated. They may still develop for Linux on an interim basis, but corporations will start fulfilling their role in Linux development, and Linux will cease to be an AoD (Army of Developers) project, and more a collaboration of volunteers and corporations.

Mozilla started out at the place that Linux is moving towards. Mozilla doesn't need an AoD to ride forth and save the project. Instead, it needs programmers and others that can fill the gaps in their armor - programmers who can pick up the slack in a particular area, or port the application to a new platform. Mozilla has gotten just that. Numerous coders have contributed to the GTK implementation, and to the Internationalization effort. In addition, major ports are underway for OS/2, Be, and Amiga. Be Inc. just hired a full-time staffer to help with the Bezilla porting effort. These are just a few examples of the contributions being made by the Mozilla community.

It was assumed that Mozilla needed the AoD because Netscape's fortunes were sliding, and soon it would dissolve and the only thing holding up Mozilla would be the sweaty backs of Open Source coders. However, Mozilla got the backing it needed, from a company that knows what it's like to create software for free: AOL.

Although it was inexplicably passed over in the mainstream computer press, AOL has been creating free software for years. AOL has never gained direct revenues from their product. AOL realized, during their purchase of Netscape, that Mozilla would never make them direct revenue. They realized that Mozilla was the key to AOL's entrance to the Internet. And they also understood that the Open-Sourcing of Mozilla, and the respect of the Internet community are essential to Mozilla's success. It will become clear over the coming months and years that AOL was the best backing that Mozilla could receive, because they have the experience and understanding needed to carry on the work.

Open Source has benefits beyond the AoD: accountability, oversight, and outreach. Mozilla has gained accountability and oversight through the source release, and from that they have gained respect in the web-development community (note how the tone of media accounts has changed in Mozilla's favor from the bitter, catty tone of just 6 months ago). They have essentially trumped their competitors (IE and Opera) in this area, and the only way those companies can gain an advantage is by releasing their source as well. Mozilla has gone one step further, however, by opening up their bug reporting system, so anyone can contribute a bug report or a fix. IE and Opera will have to address this issue if they expect to compete in an open manner with Mozilla.

Mozilla has also gained the benefits of developer outreach, and they haven't released a product yet. Coders are not only contributing incidental work, they are contributing the the specs that are used to create that incidental work. For example, the XUL-based configurable chrome has already created a stir, and it is still pre-alpha. This kind of openness involves developers and designers from the beginning, and makes them feel that they're part of the process, not "interested end-users".

Mozilla, as an Open Source, commercial, consumer-oriented product is a resounding success, but it is a success on its own terms. There is much more to be done, and the community will only grow after the first release. We await that day anxiously.

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