Weekend Discussion: Is Netscape Doing the Right Thing?
Friday May 12th, 2000
Netscape recently released its plans for the PR2 branch. Mozilla.org then released their tree plans for the next few months, and then followed up this evening with a more detailed position on tree management. The one thing that is clear is that Netscape is working on an accelerated schedule. Mozilla.org has yet to release a beta, and Netscape is currently working towards a second beta. Feature freeze for Netscape is coming much earlier than for Mozilla. This means that Netscape's feature list will probably be truncated somewhat (although the developers are trying mightily to get the remaining features in), and it also means that there might be changes to Mozilla before its release that impact its compatibility with Netscape's final release. Netscape has promised standards compliance, but there is also the serious question as to how bug-free that standards compliance will be by final release.
Is Netscape doing the right thing by pushing ahead and trying to get a release into the public's hands? Or will they just end up alienating Mozilla developers and website developers by rushing a product to market? Is it even fair to consider it "rushing"?
#8 Netscape NOW
Saturday May 13th, 2000 5:21 AM
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I see why they're rushing, and I think Netscape is absolutely right to do so. Take their partnership with Gateway for example -- probably a big part of the accelerated schedule is that Gateway has products coming out later this year (Web tablets, etc.) that they and AOL have said will use Netscape 6. This means that the products are all waiting on a finished Netscape 6, including AOL TV, etc., and if these companies want to have any sort of Christmas revenues from these new products, they need to get them out and they need Netscape to do it. When you look at it this way, you start to realize just how much is waiting on Netscape 6 to be done. It's hard to tell Gateway or any of the other companies "Oh we're sorry, we have a few little bugs yet left to quash so you can forget those Christmas revenues, you'll have to wait till next year to put out this horde of new Web products because we just can't stand that bug!" They won't wait, they'll use another product instead if they have to: IE.
How much of a crime it is to rush the browser depends on just how "broken" the release is. Take the buggy standards: which bugs are we talking about? How easy will it be to fix later? Will anyone even notice the bugs? Take for example the fact that Mozilla supports "key" CSS2 features. That doesn't mean that it supports all features, but it supports those that are crucial and the rest can be dealt with later (I assume) without too much hassle. Are the bugs in Netscape 6's standards compliance going to wind up causing broken pages later or will they be smoothed over such that developers never even notice? Are they such that anyone except Mozilla.org will care? I don't know the answer to this and I don't think anyone will until we see final.
As far as keeping compatibility with Mozilla, you have to look at Mozilla as an ongoing, never-ending project. It's always going to keep changing in ways we can't foresee now. I think it's possible Mozilla will never see a "final" version, not seriously. Even once they finally "feature freeze" Mozilla, it's just going to keep going and start changing again. It's a dynamic project, it's literally like a river flowing by and outside developers who are using it -- like Netscape -- will just dip in from time to time and use what's there at the time. Netscape unlike Mozilla HAS to get something out to start turning the tide of the Web towards standards and away from proprietary crap like IE. Even with a minor bug or two, Netscape 6's standards beat the tar out of any competing product and make life A LOT easier for Web developers. If the bugs don't matter that much (again, I'm not sure which bugs they are or how important they are) then condemning Netscape for rushing to finish Netscape 6 is like pitching a fit when a friend who owes you $100 gives you $99.75 and promises to give you a quarter later. You may want that quarter NOW, but in the end it's just a quarter (again, this assumes that these bugs cause minimal damage, if any, to Web developers).
Mozilla.org just keeps saying "oh but wait! We need to add this, too!" That's fine for Mozilla, and it's the way the project should be as a dynamic open source effort, but this doesn't work for Netscape or the industry at large. Look how long it took to recover from Necko! If we keep in mind M9 was supposed to be feature freeze LAST SUMMER, we start to see exactly how nasty this gets.
Also remember that the desktop browser battle is not what's in question here, not really. The larger battle is Internet devices, and it's NOW that Web pads, set tops, etc. are going to start coming out (AOL TV is supposed to be out in June!) and they NEED browsers. If it's not Netscape it will HAVE to be IE. These products will have hopefully dynamically updating browsers (such as Gerv mentions above) and will thus fluidly update themselves without the user having to even notice. I hope this is the case, at least. We will of course see desktop conversions as well, but hopefully the larger part of those who use Netscape 6 won't mind upgrading later to Netscape 7 (which will be fixed, presumably), especially when you consider that upgrading is a process MUCH, MUCH easier than upgrading current browsers where you have to download a nearly 20 MB file EVERY TIME you want to upgrade a stinking point release.
Bottom line: It's not just Netscape or AOL that needs Netscape 6 to be done ASAP, it's the whole industry. Mozilla's not going to have any effect at all on the industry if we stall any longer, no matter HOW good the product is. Companies need a product to put on Web devices and if it's not Netscape then we will start to see IE appearing on these devices and THAT would be FAR more damaging to the standards effort than a couple minor bugs in Netscape 6's implementation.
Having said all that, Netscape needs to handle the situation by making sure that future versions of Mozilla are not "broken" with Netscape 6. They HAVE to minimize the impact of branching early such that any potential damage to compatibility with Mozilla is minimal or non-existent. As long as they do this, I think their branching for PR2 and the accelerated schedule not only makes sense but is absolutely necessary to the entire industry.