April 12, 2002 4:00 AM PDT

Mozilla poised for revival

Mozilla is an unlikely candidate for a comeback, given that it is barely sliding out of the box.

But a comeback is exactly what the open-source project hopes to pull off in the next few weeks, when the Netscape Communications-backed effort releases the first official version of its Web browser. After four years in development, the pending event has renewed excitement in a project that once was hailed as a possible Microsoft killer--only to tumble into obscurity after lengthy delays.

The milestone itself is something of a fiction, representing a minor improvement over previous Mozilla browser versions--and one that will be quickly outstripped. The development team routinely turns out new "builds" every few weeks. Mozilla.org, the group steering the browser's development, debated the merits of setting a Mozilla 1.0 version at all. Ultimately, however, it decided the step is an important concession to attracting third-party developers that could create applications based on its technology.

"The most important thing to me is it's going to freeze the API (application programming interface)," said Ramalingam Saravanan, author of the Mozdev-hosted Protozilla project. "It's been changing so much, like every two weeks. You can't keep up."

As Mozilla.org readies the long-awaited 1.0 browser, speculation has swirled over the prospects of a renewed browser battle with Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer now dominates the Web.

The release comes as AOL Time Warner is testing Mozilla technology in versions of its America Online software, a move that could see Microsoft's Internet Explorer ousted as the default browser for some 35 million Web surfers. AOL Time Warner has also filed a civil suit on behalf of Netscape, which AOL acquired in 1999, that alleges Microsoft engaged in illegal practices.

The Mozilla project "is clearly AOL's latest effort to try to get some value out of the Netscape purchase," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst for research firm Jupiter Media Metrix.

Appealing to all camps
More significantly perhaps, the Mozilla faithful believe the technology's allure lies in its flexibility for running on various platforms including non-PC devices. Tech heavyweights, ranging from Sun Microsystems and Red Hat to Nokia, are already using Mozilla technology on a limited basis in their products.

But it will take more than tentative support to move Mozilla out of the shadows and into the limelight. Large software companies will have to be convinced that the technology can live up to their needs. That will be the biggest test of whether Mozilla's open-source roots can translate into new products coming from high-tech giants.

Mozilla architects are targeting the swelling wave of Web devices that require Internet-enabled software and accompanying applications to thrive. The next generation of cell phones, pagers, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and set-top boxes will require slimmed-down technology to access the Web, and Mozilla could model itself as the technology of choice.

Mozilla is a programming tool designed to let applications built with it run on almost any operating system. Mozilla developers initially concentrated on building a browser, but the underlying technology can be used to create many types of applications. Some developers have already branched into making Mozilla instant messaging software, media players and other applications.

Work in the browser realm has focused on its rendering engine, called Gecko. The technology, which allows Web pages to be viewed on browsing software, can be embedded in a variety of products including non-PC devices such as set-top boxes and PDAs. Gecko has also become the cornerstone of the Mozilla browser and AOL's Netscape 6.

In addition to Gecko, Mozilla has drawn significant attention for its XUL, or XML-based User-interface Language. XUL (pronounced "zool") is language for describing user interfaces of various applications. Like Sun's Java language, it is meant to be a "write once, run anywhere" solution.

That has made it attractive to some developers seeking to create applications outside of the closed world of Microsoft.

"It's open source, so it's low cost," said David Ascher, director of programming tools for ActiveState, which is using Mozilla technology to create an interface that makes it easier to work with a range of programming languages. "That also means when there's a problem with the code we can go in and fix it ourselves. The other key benefit is portability. We don't have to change much of the code to run on different platforms, which is a powerful argument for us considering that many of our customers are not using Windows."

Tracing its roots
The Mozilla movement was established in 1998 by then-independent Netscape, which charged the open-source project with creating a compelling Web-browsing technology. At the time, Netscape was engaged in a bitter market share battle against Microsoft. It made the risky move of releasing the software code for its Communicator browser to the public, hoping to convince developers to help fight its adversary.

Almost four years later, the Mozilla revolution has turned out to be a grassroots campaign. It's been marred by squabbling, unrealistically high expectations, false starts, and most importantly, Microsoft's breakaway victory in the contest for browser dominance.

The Mozilla browser's delays were exacerbated after AOL acquired Netscape in 1999. Although AOL continued to support Mozilla as the foundation for future versions of Communicator, many developers questioned the Internet company's commitment to the browser effort.

AOL, meanwhile, has emphasized the project's independence.

"Mozilla.org remains an independent organization that exists to make Mozilla a successful open-source project, and it supports the entire Mozilla community," said Catherine Corre, an AOL spokeswoman.

In all, it took more than two-and-a-half years for Netscape to release its first browser product using Mozilla technology, Netscape 6. Developers unanimously criticized Netscape 6 as an unfinished, bug-prone beta release. Future versions of Netscape 6 have corrected most of the browser's initial problems.

Mitchell Baker, chief evangelist of the Mozilla.org project, admitted the group was confronted by a series of roadblocks that hampered its development time line. The biggest setback was a decision to completely scrap Netscape 4 source code as its foundation and rebuild it from scratch.

"People generally understand when you redo a whole house, you leave a wall or two standing," Baker said. "It wasn't clear right away that most of (the code) should've been rewritten. We started with the kitchen, and then realized we had to redo the bathroom, then realized the wiring was all wrong."

Thinking outside the box
With such a late entry, there's little chance the Mozilla browser can outpace Internet Explorer's dominance and ubiquity. Instead, Mozilla supporters view non-PC devices as the next frontier. Its flexible code can fit into many molds of varying devices, letting manufacturers of Web tablets, PDAs and set-top boxes tweak the Gecko browsing engine to their own tastes and specifications.

"Now instead of just having an application locked inside a browser window, now we can use it to create a full-fledged application," said David Boswell, project manager for CollabNet and co-founder of Mozdev.org, a group that is helping to steer about 66 Mozilla-based application development projects.

Mozdev's offerings include Chimera, a Mozilla-based Web browser that Boswell says is winning some converts among Mac OS X users. Others projects that leave Web browsers far behind include the Jabberzilla instant messaging client and a music player called Lizzard.

Despite the promise of extensive application, the Mozilla technology faces considerable challenges. For one, mobile device companies such as Handspring and Palm already have browsers suited to their devices. Handspring has its own wireless browser called Blazer that is being used in many of its products and has been licensed by Sprint.

Meanwhile, Linux Labs recently released a beta version of a Web browser for wireless Palm devices called Vagabond.

In a sense, the market for handheld browsers is already picking up steam without Mozilla. Despite an initial rush among developers to download the code, the project hasn't attracted a wave of corporations and legions of developers on nearly the scale of open-source operating system Linux.

"Why somebody would want to try out a Mozilla browser on the Handspring is beyond me because there's a really good browser out there," said Ken Smiley, an analyst at market research firm Giga Information Group. "That's what they were saying with the Gecko engine. I just don't think it's really proven yet that it has a superior solution."

Furthermore, Smiley questioned whether flexibility matters to non-PC device makers. Web tablet makers rarely produce mobile communicators, and cell phone manufacturers typically don't make set-top boxes. Cell phone giant Nokia is a notable exception; it uses Mozilla's browser in its Mediaterminal set-top box, which is only available in Sweden.

On shifting ground
Interest in Mozilla appears to be changing. Despite AOL's ambiguous relationship with Mozilla and Gecko, recent events may signal a commitment to the technology by the online giant. In March, the company began testing Gecko as the default browser technology for its AOL 7.0 software after years of using Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

If Gecko indeed becomes the default technology in the anticipated release of AOL 8 this fall, the tide in the browser wars will shift.

"All of a sudden the browser battle is much more interesting simply because of the sheer numbers of AOL subscribers," said Carl Howe, an analyst at market research company Forrester Research. "It is simply a very different bundling strategy in the same way that IE is bundled with Windows."

A booting of Internet Explorer would be felt around the world. It would mean AOL is stepping onto Microsoft's home turf to challenge its hold on Web browsers and possibly other applications closely knit into Windows. Although AOL says publicly that it does not intend such an advance, it is nevertheless funneling money and support to the front line.

AOL's Corre would not elaborate on Mozilla's role in the company's future. In fact, the company's being mum about it with everyone.

"That's the million dollar question, and wish I could answer it," Mozilla.org's Baker said.

Evan Hansen contributed to this report.

 

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