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Mozilla: Fatal Blow to Open Source?

April 1, 1999, April Fool's Day. It was supposed to be a celebration of the one year anniversary of Netscape releasing their browser code as Open Source. Code maestro and Mozilla project leader Jamie Zawinski again rented the Sound Factory in San Francisco for a party. Strobe lights flashed as projectors spewed scrolling Mozilla source code across the walls. Mozilla CD ROM's mixed with pumping music. But amid the festive atmosphere Jamie Zawinski played a cruel joke on us. At least we hoped it was a joke. We hoped with our hearts that it couldn't be true.








In The Trenches Illus
DALE GLADSTONE


April 1, 1999, April Fool’s Day.
It was supposed to be a celebration of the one year anniversary of Netscape releasing their browser
code as Open Source. Code maestro and Mozilla project leader Jamie Zawinski again
rented the Sound Factory in San Francisco for a party. Strobe lights flashed as
projectors spewed scrolling Mozilla source code across the walls. Mozilla CD
ROM’s mixed with pumping music. But amid the festive atmosphere Jamie Zawinski
played a cruel joke on us. At least we hoped it was a joke. We hoped with our
hearts that it couldn’t be true.

Jamie Zawinski was giving up. Mozilla had failed.

One year ago when Netscape released the code, Marc Andreesen spoke at the
Silicon Valley Linux Users Group to a cheering standing room only crowd of over
400 people. Wannabe contributors asked the common question that night, “How can I
contribute?” Earlier that day, within four hours of the code’s release,
Australian cryptographic wizards contributed strong cryptography into “free”
Mozilla. Netscape had validated the OpenSource model. Other software vendors
would soon see the results of Netscape’s bold, visionary move marking the
imminent demise of proprietary software.

What Went Wrong?

Mozilla never achieved the success of the Open Source projects that inspired
it. The contributor base has remained largely Netscape employees. The “Open
Source Community” never really embraced Mozilla and the project has stalled.
Unfortunately, many of us in the Open Source community made a point of making
Mozilla a test case. Netscape was the first major company to release a
significant project as Open Source. As Jamie says in his resignation at http://www.jwz.org/gruntle/nomo.html.

“My biggest fear, and part of the reason I stuck it out as long as I have, is
that people will look at the failures of mozilla.org as emblematic of open source
in general. Let me assure you that whatever problems the Mozilla project is
having are not because OpenSource doesn’t work. Open Source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea. If there’s a cautionary tale here, it is that
you can’t take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of ‘Open
Source’, and have everything magically work out. Software is hard. The issues
aren’t that simple.”

Frankly, Netscape released the code in part because they were desperate. They
had lost the browser war. Does that make Open Source the last gasp of the dying
and desperate? I don’t think so. As Jamie says, Open Source does work, but not
everywhere. That’s something we have to be honest about. You can’t fix every
piece of software just by making it Open Source. We do ourselves and the world a
disservice when we preach the Open Source model as a panacea for all software
development.

Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” gave us the first organized
attempt to codify what makes an Open Source project successful. In that paper,
Eric listed 19 lessons he learned about Open Source development. Let’s take a
look back at two of the lessons Eric taught us in that paper:

Lesson #1: Every good work of software starts by scratching a
developer’s personal itch.

Jamie was employee number 20 at Netscape, and no one doubts his love for the
project he shepherded there. But while Mozilla may have started out with a team
of developers trying to “change the world”, I contend that when it was apparent that Mozilla had lost the browser war, the
heart fell out of the project. It became a project kept alive primarily to
demonstrate the Open Source model, and was no longer changing the world.

Lesson #7: Release early. Release often. And listen to your
customers.

This one bears repeating: Release early, release often. Even though Mozilla
code was constantly open and available, there was never a release. In one year,
the code was never stamped with a number, called “alpha”, and never widely
announced as a release. You can’t go that long without calling something a
release. People lose interest. Mindshare wanes. Developers begin to lose hope.
Jamie said it well:

“People only really contribute when they get something out of it. When
someone is first beginning to contribute, they especially need to see some kind
of payback, some kind of positive reinforcement, right away. For example, if
someone were running a Web browser, then stopped, added a simple new command to
the source, recompiled, and had that same Web browser plus their addition, they
would be motivated to do this again, and possibly to tackle larger projects.

We never got there. We never distributed the source code to a working Web
browser, more importantly, to the Web browser that people were actually using. We
didn’t release the source code to the most-previous release of Netscape
Navigator. Instead, we released what we had at the time, which had a number of
incomplete features, and lots and lots of bugs. And of course we weren’t able to
release any Java or crypto-code at all.

What we released was a large pile of interesting code, but it didn’t much
resemble something you could actually use.”

So the project was moving along for the wrong reasons, and betas weren’t
getting released. I’d contend that there are two other major reasons Mozilla
never became a community dominated project:

1. Netscape still released Navigator for Linux. Programmers are driven by
need. If Netscape had stopped releasing Linux binaries, more people would have
contributed out of necessity.

2. The opportunity to do something new and original was limited.
Brilliant programmers want to make a name for themselves. Mozilla was an existing,
large project. It’s functionality was essentially decided. Web browsers are not a
new sexy area where lots of programmers want to contribute.

All of this has led to the point we’re at today where Jamie has moved on, and
Mozilla is in danger.

That’s not to say that Mozilla hasn’t contributed a lot. It has. We have a
lot of interesting new tools like Bugzilla and Tinderbox. Netscape brought a
great deal of publicity and recognition to Open Source. Hopefully, Jamie and
Netscape followed Eric’s Lesson #5:

Lesson #5: When you lose interest in a program, your last duty to it
is to hand it off to a competent successor.

As long as the code is out there, the future is still bright. That’s the
promise of Open Source.



Larry Augustin is President and Founder of VA Research, Inc., the first Linux
systems vendor. He can be reached at lma@varesearch.com.

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