Chrome, Firefox, Mozilla browser engines – The beginnings

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The 13th concluding part of The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric Raymond. Today Mozilla’s gecko engine based browsers dominate the internet. At the beginning of new millennium Microsoft’s Internet Explorer ruled the roost. Development of browsers under open source methodology propelled Chrome and Firefox to the top.

Read the beginnings of this phenomenon in this part.

13. Epilog: Netscape Embraces the Bazaar

It’s a strange feeling to realize you’re helping make history….

On January 22 1998, approximately seven months after I first published The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Netscape Communications, Inc. announced plans to give away the source for Netscape Communicator. I had had no clue this was going to happen before the day of the announcement.

Eric Hahn, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Netscape, emailed me shortly afterwards as follows: “On behalf of everyone at Netscape, I want to thank you for helping us get to this point in the first place. Your thinking and writings were fundamental inspirations to our decision.”

The following week I flew out to Silicon Valley at Netscape’s invitation for a day-long strategy conference (on 4 Feb 1998) with some of their top executives and technical people. We designed Netscape’s source-release strategy and license together.

A few days later I wrote the following:

Netscape is about to provide us with a large-scale, real-world test of the bazaar model in the commercial world. The open-source culture now faces a danger; if Netscape’s execution doesn’t work, the open-source concept may be so discredited that the commercial world won’t touch it again for another decade.

On the other hand, this is also a spectacular opportunity. Initial reaction to the move on Wall Street and elsewhere has been cautiously positive. We’re being given a chance to prove ourselves, too. If Netscape regains substantial market share through this move, it just may set off a long-overdue revolution in the software industry.

The next year should be a very instructive and interesting time.

And indeed it was. As I write in mid-2000, the development of what was later named Mozilla has been only a qualified success. It achieved Netscape’s original goal, which was to deny Microsoft a monopoly lock on the browser market. It has also achieved some dramatic successes (notably the release of the next-generation Gecko rendering engine).

However, it has not yet garnered the massive development effort from outside Netscape that the Mozilla founders had originally hoped for. The problem here seems to be that for a long time the Mozilla distribution actually broke one of the basic rules of the bazaar model; it didn’t ship with something potential contributors could easily run and see working. (Until more than a year after release, building Mozilla from source required a license for the proprietary Motif library.)

Most negatively (from the point of view of the outside world) the Mozilla group didn’t ship a production-quality browser for two and a half years after the project launch—and in 1999 one of the project’s principals caused a bit of a sensation by resigning, complaining of poor management and missed opportunities. “Open source,” he correctly observed, “is not magic pixie dust.”

And indeed it is not. The long-term prognosis for Mozilla looks dramatically better now (in November 2000) than it did at the time of Jamie Zawinski’s resignation letter—in the last few weeks the nightly releases have finally passed the critical threshold to production usability. But Jamie was right to point out that going open will not necessarily save an existing project that suffers from ill-defined goals or spaghetti code or any of the software engineering’s other chronic ills. Mozilla has managed to provide an example simultaneously of how open source can succeed and how it could fail.

In the mean time, however, the open-source idea has scored successes and found backers elsewhere. Since the Netscape release we’ve seen a tremendous explosion of interest in the open-source development model, a trend both driven by and driving the continuing success of the Linux operating system. The trend Mozilla touched off is continuing at an accelerating rate.


Click here to read the other parts of The Cathedral and The Bazaar

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