Is Mozilla a Good Investment?

Ever since Netscape released the source code for Netscape Communicator and the Mozilla open source development project began, a cottage industry of commentary and prediction has sprung up. Pundits have alternately hailed Mozilla as a breakthrough for the open source philosophy, observed it as an interesting business trend, and dismissed it as an outright failure.

Trenches Illustration

Ever since Netscape released the source code for Netscape Communicator and the
Mozilla open source development project began, a cottage industry of commentary and prediction has
sprung up. Pundits have alternately hailed Mozilla as a breakthrough for the open source philosophy,
observed it as an interesting business trend, and dismissed it as an outright failure.

In the meantime, a real open source development project has rolled on — one that’s producing a
more and more usable Web browser and mail client. I think it’s therefore appropriate to stop and
consider the “Mozilla question” one more time. But asking whether Mozilla is a success or a failure
is not really the right question. The project has, of course, not yet shipped a 1.0 product, so
there is quite simply no end result to judge today.

Once we get beyond this fact, the relative success and failure of the Mozilla project really
depends on people’s personal definitions: Some claim that the Mozilla project has failed because it
hasn’t attracted enough developers beyond the original Netscape team (now at America Online); if we
judge the project this way, how many developers not associated with AOL would be enough to call
Mozilla a success?

For example, in August 1999 19 percent of the people checking code into the Mozilla tree did not
have e-mail addresses ending in netscape.com. Is this enough? Another 65 patches and hundreds of bug
reports were submitted by people without direct check-in access. Is this enough?

Clearly, a better question for people to ask is, “Should I invest in Mozilla?” Should open
source developers, Web content and application developers, companies considering use of Mozilla, and
individual users invest their valuable time in helping the Lizard?

The Mozilla Prospectus

An educated investor might do research and look at various underlying fundamentals before
investing money in a company. So, like prudent investors, people should explore some of the key
factors that will influence the success or failure of Mozilla, before deciding whether or not to get

And just as investors can profit from opportunities to buy good stocks before anyone else knows
about them, people getting involved with Mozilla now rather than later can realize many rewards:
They’ll have more opportunity to influence the project; they get first shot at making a name for
themselves with cool Mozilla extensions and Mozilla-related activities; their Web applications will
already be Mozilla-ready when Mozilla releases; and their Mozilla-based commercial products will
come to market sooner.

The first and most fundamental issue is how much information is publicly available about the
project. After all, perhaps the greatest source of risk is uncertainty: The less people know about
something, the more they fear something might be wrong with it.

Fortunately, the Mozilla project is pretty transparent, with many information sources you can
consult. The Mozilla source code itself is available (of course), not only in periodic releases but
also in the form of a public CVS (Concurrent Versions System) repository from which people can check
out source files. There is also a Web-based interface that lets you view cross-referenced source
code in the CVS system; this is supplemented by online tools providing Web-based public access to
information on who did what to the source tree and if the software is building without errors on
various reference platforms.

The breadth and depth of public Mozilla-related information is impressive — positively
breathtaking compared to a typical proprietary software-development project prior to release. Those
who don’t have the time or interest to delve into the Mozilla project’s tools or newsgroups can
simply read the weekly status reports posted on the Mozilla Web site or follow the daily news on
MozillaZine, an independent Web site specializing in Mozilla-related news and opinion. Some
work is needed. There is no definitive documentation on Mozilla APIs and related developer features.
But there is enough information available to satisfy any interested persons as to whether there are
significant problems “hiding in the woodwork” within the Mozilla project.

The Weather Report

The next issue of interest to potential Mozilla investors is what we might call the investment
climate; that is, the various nontechnical factors influencing the Mozilla project and why someone
would or would not want to be involved with it. In particular, how open is the project to
contributions from new participants, and how likely is it that those participants will find the
experience rewarding?

Many early concerns about Mozilla centered around open source licensing, in particular the
Netscape Public License (NPL) and Mozilla Public License (MPL) created specifically for the Mozilla
project. By now those concerns have been muted, as people have become more familiar with the NPL and
MPL and their implications in practice. But for the most part, the NPL and MPL seem to be accepted
as reasonable licenses: They provide good guarantees that the Mozilla code will remain freely
available, while at the same time allowing commercial proprietary Mozilla extensions and
Mozilla-based products.

More recently, potential participants in the Mozilla project have expressed concern about just
how welcome their contributions would be. Some concerns have been about symbolic issues like naming
conventions (e.g., using the prefix ns for function names), while others have dealt with the
difficulty of “getting into” the code base and making real contributions.

At least for certain issues we can avoid speculation and discover exactly how Mozilla developers
not associated with AOL perceive the project and their place in it; both MozillaZine and the
Mozilla public newsgroups have seen extensive discussions on this general topic. Based on the most
recent set of exchanges, it appears that many of the project participants not associated with AOL
have been impressed with the cooperation, help, and gratitude they’ve received from Mozilla
developers working on the Netscape client development team(impressed enough to write unsolicited
testimonials about it). There is also now concrete evidence of major contributions by others — the
Mozilla ActiveX control, MathML (Mathematical Markup Language) support, much Java-related work, and
various Mozilla add-ons. Even a superficial scan of the Mozilla.org Web site shows a growing list of

The Code Hard Truth

Let’s now turn from the nontechnical aspects back to the heart of the matter: the quality and
strength of the Mozilla software as produced by the Mozilla development team. Whether the Mozilla
project has a good atmosphere and the chance to work with friendly and helpful people is irrelevant
if the Mozilla software doesn’t actually perform to expectations. Does Mozilla contain good
technology, and will it be a good product?

Again, we don’t yet have a finished product to judge; however, we can gain some idea of
Mozilla’s level of technical excellence in at least two ways. The first is simply to download the
ongoing Mozilla builds and try them out.

The second way to gauge the technical quality of Mozilla is to look at the variety of ways that
people are beginning to exploit the technologies on which it’s built. At the highest level, many
people are now working to embed the entire Mozilla layout engine (called Gecko) in their
applications; this can be done using various mechanisms, most notably on Microsoft Windows using the
Mozilla ActiveX control.

At a more granular level, Mozilla itself can be customized, modified, and extended using a set of
connected technologies, in particular the XML-based XUL language for defining Mozilla’s user
interfaces, the COM-inspired XPCOM system used to both create and call Mozilla components, and the
XPCONNECT technology for allowing JavaScript scripting of built-in or added Mozilla modules. In
particular, the very extensive support in Mozilla for JavaScript scripting — not only of Web
document elements but of pieces of Mozilla itself — opens up the field of Mozilla development to
millions of JavaScript programmers.

However, even the best products have sometimes not found a market ready or willing to embrace
them. So investors should consider the market opportunities: In which markets might Mozilla be most

In the mainstream world of Macintoshes and Windows-based PCs, the success of Mozilla will depend
both on the introduction of commercial client software based on the Mozilla code and also on the
rate at which the installed base of Internet clients evolves; as interface guru Jakob Nielsen has
pointed out, as the online population moves into the mainstream, browsers are being upgraded at a
slower rate. Regular people simply do not upgrade as frequently as early adopters.

Beyond the mainstream there are at least two rapidly growing markets

where the installed base is minimal and where Mozilla has excellent chances for success: the
Linux desktop market and the market for information appliances. The Linux operating system is
already one of the primary Mozilla development platforms, and Mozilla-based client software in some
form or another will almost certainly be shipped with most if not all Linux distributions. If the
Linux desktop market in fact grows to rival the Windows and Macintosh markets, then the use of
Mozilla will quite likely grow right along with it.

Even more intriguing and perhaps ultimately more significant is the potential for Mozilla code
to serve as the basis for applications in devices like PDAs, Web-enabled television set- top boxes,
cellular phones, and other portable and mobile wireless products. As a free (i.e., gratis)
product, Mozilla can add significant functionality to information appliances at zero unit cost — a
very important consideration in the embedded market. As a freely redistributable and modifiable
product, Mozilla can be ported to all the commercially important embedded operating systems (and in
fact is currently being ported to some major ones); information-appliance vendors choosing Mozilla
are not forced to use a particular OS and OS supplier.

The combination of Mozilla and Linux may prove particularly attractive to information-appliance
designers. At a recent industry conference Nokia showed to the press and public a proof-of-concept
MediaScreen prototype — a portable device able to receive broadcast digital video and interactively
access the Internet. The embedded operating system in the prototype was Linux, with Mozilla code
used to display Web content on the device’s color LCD TV screen. As the memory capacity and
processing speed of wireless devices increases, we may well see many such applications.

So all of the factors of a sound investment are there: The quality and completeness of
Mozilla-related information, the ability of Mozilla developers to work in an open and cooperative
manner, the quality of Mozilla, and the market opportunities. If you look carefully at all of these
factors you will find that the potential rewards of investment in Mozilla far outweigh the

This view is partially confirmed by growing evidence of increasing involvement in the Mozilla
project by developers and organizations not associated with AOL. Over the past few months we’ve seen
increases in the amount of contributed code and bug reports, several instances of companies paying
developers to work full- or part-time on Mozilla-related projects, and a growing number of “design
wins” for Mozilla.

Anyone involved in the Web, mail, or news applications should seriously consider participating
in the Mozilla project. It’s a sound investment for yourself, for your company, and for the future
of the Web.

Mitchell Baker is Chief Lizard Wrangler at Mozilla.org. She can be reached at

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