Resistance really was futile

Microsoft and AOL announce an unholy $750 million alliance. Where does that leave Mozilla, Netscape's open-source rebel child?

Published June 2, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

And so, the browser wars end, again, not with a bang, but with a plea bargain. If there's one thing the analysts are agreeing on in the wake of Thursday's settlement between Microsoft and AOL Time Warner, it's that the Netscape browser is finally kaput. In return for a cool $750 million from Microsoft, AOL is dropping its private antitrust suit against Bill Gates and Co. -- and, as an extra goodie, getting a seven-year royalty-free license to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. Prospects for the future health of AOL's Netscape division appear dim.

There are other important aspects to the agreement, which we'll get to in a minute, but for now, consider this: Normally, when one party forks over $750 million to another to settle a lawsuit, that's usually a pretty good sign that the party ponying up the cash is guilty, guilty, guilty. You can be excused for thinking that Microsoft, mindful that a federal appeals court unanimously found it guilty of abusing its monopoly power to crush Netscape, wanted to cut a deal to avoid the chances of getting dinged for even bigger numbers in court.

But the closer you look at the provisions of the agreement, the better it appears for Microsoft. As part of the deal, AOL is also receiving a license to Microsoft's Windows Media technology and is agreeing to cooperate on instant messaging and digital rights management services. These are all areas that Microsoft has, with good reason, targeted as crucial markets of the future. Microsoft has always wanted a piece of every online transaction: If it controls the Web browser, and the content distribution technology, and the digitial rights management software, well, $750 million suddenly seems like chump change if it means getting the largest media corporation and largest online service in the world to use your software. AOL, after all, was desperate to begin paying down its $23 billion in debt. Far from admitting guilt, it looks as though Microsoft took advantage of AOL's need for cash to establish another major beachhead for its products.

So, Microsoft wins, again. After doling out spare change from its $46 billion cash reserves to make sure that the one company with the resources and technology that could have been a threat to it no longer poses a challenge, Microsoft is exactly where it intended to be from the beginning -- ruling the roost, ensuring that its software is ubiquitous. Neither the federal government nor the world's biggest media corporation can stop it. Is there anyone else left?

Well, aside from a small browser company based in Norway named Opera, and a computer manufacturer in Cupertino, Calif., currently making some noise in the online music world, there is still the doughty world of free software. With respect to browser technology, that means Mozilla. And therein lies a little problem. Although ostensibly an independent organization that sets its own goals and kowtows to no master, Mozilla has long enjoyed funding and development support, first from Netscape, then AOL, and finally AOL Time Warner.

Mozilla took some time to gain momentum, but over the past year and half, it has delivered a high-quality product, competitive with Internet Explorer -- proof that, while the open-source software development method may not always be the fastest way to get from point A to point B, it can, given enough time, definitely get there.

But Mozilla, unlike most other technology start-ups, was always spared the need to make a profit by its corporate sponsor. The question now is whether its luck has run out. Why should AOL, doubtless looking for further ways to pare down its debt, continue to subsidize a money-losing technology division like Netscape, not to mention an open-source project with no prospect of helping the bottom line? The newsgroups and mailing lists are abuzz with worry. Whither Mozilla?

Those words evoke a strange sense of déjà vu. I wrote my first story that mentioned the Mosaic Web browser almost 10 years ago, and as a reporter, I covered the browser wars and the Microsoft antitrust trial feeling a little like a hamster endlessly running in a wheel. From the beginning, Microsoft observers warned that resistance was futile, and over time, their pessimism appeared well placed. Microsoft's quest for domination of the software infrastructure of the universe has never stopped -- sometimes it slows, but it always marches on.

So, while it may have taken a few years, and some irritating fees spent on lawyers, to finally dispense with the Netscape challenger, Microsoft must finally have the end of the struggle in sight. If Netscape pulls the plug on its support for Mozilla as a result of the AOL-Microsoft deal, yet another depressing chapter in the browser-war chronicles will end just as most people had predicted it would from the outset.

Or maybe not. Chris Blizzard, a Red Hat programmer who works full time on Mozilla, says that the possible end of Netscape support doesn't have Mozilla developers in a panic.

"It would be a bump in the road," he says, "maybe slow down work on some of the builds for a while, but it would be a matter of weeks, not months, to get everything running smoothly again."

As recently as two years ago, contributions of Mozilla code and bug reports were dominated by people with e-mail addresses. But Blizzard says that the majority of contributions now come from outside Netscape. Netscape still pays for some key pieces of infrastructure -- Web hosting; the computers on which the new daily versions of the software, or "builds," are hosted; and some staff members who monitor the builds. But, says Blizzard, all those could be replaced by other companies -- some of whom have already offered to step in.

"We're not that worried," says Blizzard, who notes that the Netscape development team has been getting smaller for years. "To be honest, we don't depend on Netscape as much as we did. If they decide to start pulling the plug, it's not a huge deal."

Blizzard's blasé appraisal of Mozilla's future offers an intriguing contrast to the outburst of hype and drama that accompanied the launch of the Mozilla project, when Netscape's Mark Andreessen treated the release of Netscape's source code as if it were a cross between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Magna Carta.

That hype gradually faded as the Mozilla team toiled for years without producing a usable browser. But all through its corporate travails, Netscape kept supporting the project, the code improved, and today there is a viable, non-Microsoft browser available for free that keeps improving.

If Blizzard is correct, maybe Mozilla doesn't really need Netscape anymore -- maybe it's ready to leave the nest. And wouldn't that be the greatest irony of a long and tortuous story? After years of effort by the federal government, Microsoft got away with a slap on the wrist. And after years of tussling with AOL, Microsoft is getting what it wants by handing over buckets of cash. But still, it can't stamp out those pesky open-source coders, who, like cockroaches after a nuclear blast, seem to be able to survive everything. Companies come and go, stock markets rise and fall, and still the developers make their bug reports, check in their new code, and prepare their next release. Maybe the browser wars aren't really over, after all.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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