My Turn
My Mac Magazine #37, May ’98

Let’s pretend you own a software product that is used by millions of people worldwide. Your company, while once on top, is now in trouble of being overcome by a huge, dominant software giant. What do you do?

If you’re Netscape Communications, you open the source code to your bread and butter product, Netscape Communicator (formerly Navigator). What does this mean for us and can Netscape hope to gain by this action?

First, by opening the source code to everyone, Netscape is effectively giving an open invitation to developers worldwide to download and create better versions of the software. Sounds great as Netscape will no longer foot the total bill for development of its core product. It also means that perhaps some of the best and brightest people in the programming field may join the project and make Navigator a ‘must have’ for every computer user, thus staving off the main competition, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

But let’s look at the whole concept of what we’re taking about. When Netscape decided to release their Web browser software for free, it was agreed to be a good thing. Hey, free is always better for the end user, as more people will use a product more readily if they can do so without dishing out more cash. However, don’t think that Netscape is doing this out of the kindness of its heart. It was in retaliation of Microsoft making Explorer free.

You see, when the Internet really started to take off, Microsoft got caught flatfooted. They found out that they had no controlling power over the Internet, and when it was shown how popular and lucrative, as well as necessary, the Internet was becoming, Microsoft got busy in an attempt to try and take control. (Or so the anti-Microsoft song goes, a theory I’m not sure I subscribe to.)

So Microsoft makes Explorer free on both the Mac and PC. Millions of Netscape users get up and leave for what may be cleaner waters in the Microsoft pool. Meanwhile, Netscape sees its once unequaled dominance on the Internet start to slip away. They had to do something, and quick.

The first salvo was to make its Internet program suite available for free. Why would you want Communicator/Navigator if you had to buy it, when Microsoft’s Explorer was free? If you put aside advanced features, stability, and the like, many people will make a choice based on the money situation. To pay or not to pay, if you will. Personally, I would more than likely opt for the free software myself.

The constant change and advancements of the Internet demands that your Web browser, the primary piece of any Internet suite of programs, stay updated and current. Try running Netscape Navigator 1.1 today and you will miss much of what the Internet has become (dynamic HTML, Java, etc.). But such enhancements have a downside in that these new technologies might not yet be industry-supported standards, which can mean that even the latest version of a Web browser could evolve into an unstable program (the first release of Communicator 4.0 comes to mind). And nothing will scare away users as fast as causing their computer to crash on a daily basis.

All these factors, and more, have contributed to Netscape making the source code freely available. For us as users, this may well signal a dark time ahead.

Netscape has set up
, who “will provide a central point of contact and community for those interested in using or improving the source code.” Sounds like a great big happy family, where all the people working on code can spend their time getting together with each other to work on projects, announce when projects are ready for users and more. All in the name of creating the best Internet product available. Who could be against such a laudable goal?

Perhaps you should.

What happens when you are presented with a few hundred versions of essentially the same Web browser? (To keep this a little more focused I will ignore the other programs the software could include, such as email and ftp clients) Now you can have “Rick’s Web Browser” which is buggy as heck, “Tom’s Web Browser” which is more stable that Rick’s but does not support new Internet standards and so on. If you’re creating a Web site, to which browser do you code your source for? As of right now, what may look great in Navigator 3.1 and Explorer 4.0 may look horrible in Communicator 4.0. Now add in a few hundred more Web browsers, and a Web Master will really have his/her hands full.

Netscape/Mozilla counter this argument by pointing to success of the Linux operating system, which is created by people all over the world, and whose source code is freely available to anyone.

The problem is easy to see with Netscape’s analogy. Linux, first and foremost, is not an operating system for the everyday home computer user. It was/is created by hackers/coders, people who saw something worthwhile and worked on it to make it the best program they could. No one was getting rich off it. In the Netscape scenario, they assume that perhaps many of these same hackers/coders will give Communicator/Navigator the same attention they did Linux, as well as the dedication that went/goes into that project. What they perhaps fail to realize is that these same hackers/coders may not be willing to put in hundreds of hours to create a better Web browser only to watch Netscape reap all the benefits by incorporating all those long hours into its own “Official” version of the software. The benefits, of course, will in one way or another, translate into more money for Netscape, even though the program in question is free. I can’t speak for anyone else but I will be damned if I would work my butt off so someone else can make a living, while I get squat.

Fearing its loss of power and position, Netscape has made a critical decision, and whether or not it was a good choice remains to be seen. I’m by no means a fortuneteller, nor am I any kind of financial wizard privy to inside business decisions. I’m simply a home computer user like you who only wants some simple things from my programs: stability, advanced features, ease of use, and compatibility with standards. If Netscape is unable to provide me with such, then I will go elsewhere. If Microsoft is unable, then I find another alternative. Is opening up Netscape’s source code on part the answer to my problem or simply a whole new headache I can really do without?

Please write in with your thoughts…

Tim Robertson

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