Mozilla's revenge

As the much-touted, long-delayed open-source browser nears the version 1.0 finish line, it may give AOL a new weapon against Microsoft.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 12, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

"Hebrew is now supported on Solaris."

Thus reads the first line of the release notes for the most recent version of Mozilla, the open-source Web browser born out of Netscape's decline. And right there, you can learn all you really need to know about why free, or open-source, software is so vital -- even after being declared a has-been by its competitors, or even worse, un-American.

What the sentence means is that users of computers running Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system can now download a version of Mozilla that supports the Hebrew alphabet. I don't know of any good statistics that might tell us how many Solaris-using, Hebrew-speaking Mozilla fans are out there in the world, although the strength of Israel's software industry might be a hint that the number isn't tiny. But numbers are beside the point. If only one such person existed, and that person wanted to write the code that would make Mozilla display Hebrew properly on a Sun computer, that would be enough.

Open-source software development is based on the premise that by tapping the collective power of all those people with their individual needs, you can create programs that are (a) responsive to real-world needs rather than marketing dictates, and (b) more reliable and bug-free than their proprietary versions, because so many people are testing them and submitting bug reports and fixes.

Linux has long been the flag-carrier for this methodology. But another very important test case has been Mozilla -- a highly hyped project that dominated the tech press headlines at its launch four years ago but has since been dismissed by competitors (read: Microsoft) as hopelessly behind schedule and just not very good. As Internet Explorer grabbed a bigger and bigger chunk of market share, Mozilla has increasingly been cited as an example of open-source failure rather than triumph.

That may be about to change. I was reading the release notes to Mozilla this Monday morning because my interest had been piqued by a report that, according to "inside sources" at AOL-TimeWarner, the giant media conglomerate was finally going to follow through on its plan to use Mozilla's "rendering engine," Gecko, as the heart of its Web browser, instead of Internet Explorer. (The "rendering engine" is the browser's software core that does the heavy work of taking HTML code and turning it into a legible layout on your screen.)

If true, the news is highly significant -- probably the single most dramatic development in the browser wars since AOL bought Netscape in late 1998. On one side, Microsoft remains determined to control the online world with .NET and an arsenal of proprietarily coded software applications. On the other, AOL-TimeWarner begins embracing open systems and open-source software as it seeks its own position of world dominance (through its proprietary network and media).

But is Mozilla really good enough to give IE a run for the money? The last time I tried it, a year and a half ago, it was so buggy, slow and lacking in features that I gave up in disgust after a week of software pain. Ever since, I had dismissed as overly idealistic advocacy the mumbling I kept hearing from various developers who touted each new Mozilla "milestone" release as incrementally better than the one before. The news about AOL, however, encouraged me to download version 0.9.8. (0.9.9 is supposed to be imminent, and excitement within the Mozilla world is building about the upcoming release of a full-fledged 1.0. Meanwhile, the commercial Netscape browser, which is now largely based on older versions of Mozilla, is still available.)

As I write these words, I've been running Mozilla for Windows for almost five hours. While that's obviously not enough time to make a detailed technical appraisal, I can say that Mozilla has already become my default browser and that it is as fast and slick and full-featured as I want. It may not be perfect, but there's no denying that it is for real. What's more, Mozilla isn't just a usable browser -- it's a powerful reminder of why free software engenders excitement and passion from both its users and its creators. And if AOL is really going to put some muscle behind Mozilla, well then, life in the browser world is about to get interesting.

Four years is a long time to spend creating a Web browser. In Internet time, as we used to reckon it, that's at least a couple of centuries. Since the release of the source code to Netscape Navigator in March 1998, stock market bubbles have boomed and busted, free software has gone from the Next Big Thing to yesterday's news, and Microsoft has ... well, OK, some things haven't changed at all. Microsoft is still the undisputed master of the software universe. In 1998, Microsoft's share of the Windows browser market passed Netscape's for the first time. Today, it owns around 90 percent.

If AOL follows through on basing the AOL browser on open-source software, it could strike a major blow at Microsoft. But just by continuing to fund and support the Mozilla project for the last three years, the company deserves some credit.

As do the developers who are actually doing the work. Mozilla today is so much more impressive than it was a year and a half ago that it made me feel like I wanted to be a hacker all over again, just as I did when I first began to tap into the fervor that was fueling the growth of Linux and Apache. Within an hour of downloading Mozilla, I was hanging out in an IRC chat room listening to Mozilla fans discuss bugs in the 0.9.9 version, and I was reading a Mozilla news group dedicated to versions of Mozilla for Unix operating systems, in a so-far-futile attempt to find out exactly who was responsible for fixing the Solaris version's Hebrew support.

The default home page for Mozilla leads off with the word "Congratulations!" Shortly thereafter, it asks the question "What needs to be done?" It strongly encourages new users to get involved, to report bugs, suggest features and become part of the Mozilla community. If you dig deeper, into the news groups and chat rooms and mailing lists, you find ample evidence that that community does exist.

Free software, it appears, doesn't need to follow a time line, if there is enough energy behind its development. To a company obsessed with quarterly earnings reports, a four-year time scale is unimaginably long -- but for geeks who like to hack, what's a year here or a year there? Progress can accrete -- it doesn't matter if the software improves at a glacial pace, if it never stops improving. Eventually it will get really, really good.

Ironically, Microsoft itself has always understood this principle. Notorious for buggy, nearly unusable first versions of products, it has taken over market after market by incrementally improving its software (we'll put aside, for the moment, that other nasty habit it has of illegally leveraging its monopoly power) until it arrives at a blockbuster. .NET naysayers should take notice of that fact -- Microsoft will keep tweaking it until it is unstoppable, unless it is met by an equally irresistible force.

AOL is the leading corporate contender for the position of "most likely to challenge Microsoft to a sumo wrestling death match." Robin Miller's report on NewsForge suggests that, in addition to incorporating Mozilla elements in the AOL browser, the company is also boosting its use of Linux-based operating systems in its back end, for two very good reasons: They're cheaper, and they mean AOL isn't reliant on other companies for control of the code that runs AOL's Web servers.

Could AOL, as part of its strategic positioning against Microsoft, also tap the people power of free software? The prospect, given the ancient antagonism between the Net's geeky elite and AOL's mainstream middle-of-the-road mandate, might once have seemed absurd. But as I installed Mozilla with ease Monday morning, and then gaped with delighted surprise at how well it worked, I began to wonder.

Mozilla is a way into the world of free software for the average user. Linux is too technically challenging for most regular computer users, and many other open-source software programs are targeted at niche markets. But anyone can download, install and use Mozilla, and then anyone can report a bug. And then, who knows? It might get even better.

Hebrew is now supported on Solaris. By itself, the sentence is weirdly enigmatic. But it's a heck of a lot more significant than the simple fact that some users of Sun hardware can now render the Hebrew alphabet accurately while Web surfing. It means that somewhere out there, someone right now is hacking a few lines of code that will make life better for someone else, and we all get to benefit.

This story has been corrected.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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