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Mozilla Development in the News. This week has seen a lot of press on the Mozilla front, not, perhaps, unexpected, considering the one-year anniversary of the release of the Netscape source code, but with some unexpected twists. It began with Netscape's press release about the anniversary. Like most press releases, it is full of good news and excellent quotes, like "In a year's time, mozilla.org has gone from being a beautiful idea to a beautiful reality", a comment from Michael Leventhal of CiTEC Information, developers of DocZilla. However, it was fairly swiftly followed by Jamie Zawinski's resignation, both from Netscape and from the Mozilla project. For Jamie, the fact that Netscape 5.0 has not yet shipped after an entire year meant that the project had failed. "For me, shipping is the thing."
Jamie's letter is really not all gloom and doom, though a lot of that is in there. Carefully separated out, the real failure he sees was Netscape's failure to live up to the promise of its early years. Concentrate on Mozilla and you'll find a list of successes, including the release of ancillary tools, such as their bug system, source-control interface, and build tools. The open-source development model also brought valuable feedback about the direction the Netscape source was originally going. "Though we didn't get a whole lot of participation in the form of source code, we did get a lot of feedback about the directions the software was going. And the right feedback at the right time can easily be far more valuable than source code. By doing development out in the open, and ``living in a fishbowl,'' I believe that Netscape made better decisions about the directions of development than would have been made otherwise." That valuable feedback was part of what slowed down the first real shipment. The delay, according to all sources we've heard, harbinges a better quality product as a result.
Mozilla is not the first open source project to slip on its deadlines. For example, releases of the Debian distribution have also been known to slip. The Linux 2.2 kernel series had lengthy delays this year as well. The primary reasons for these delays were the same: the tenet that the product should not ship until it is ready, that hard choices should be made if they are "the right thing to do", even if that holds back the release of the product. One of the good points of the open source model is that releases are controlled by the judgments of the developers, not by marketing pressures.
In addition, some tremendous new features have been added to Mozilla by developers outside of Netscape, such as the expat XML parser and the Mozilla ActiveX control. Most importantly, it brought attention and peer review, a critical contribution. As commented by Frank Hecker in his Mozilla-At-One article, "... many of the world's leading experts on Web standards (HTML 4.0, CSS, XML, etc.) have contributed valuable advice and feedback on the implementation of those standards in Mozilla; their help is a key reason why even in its current immature state the Mozilla code is more standards-compliant than any other browser available today."
So what is the final verdict? Is Jamie Zawinski's departure (along with John Giannandrea, another Netscape engineer) a signal that the open source development model has failed? Not in the least. Although his comment, "Open source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea", is likely to become a much-repeated classic, a review of the current status of Mozilla indicates that the open source development model very much is working. Much good has already come from the development process, in the form of source code reuseable for other open source and commercial projects. Although delayed, Mozilla is currently meeting its projected milestones, the latest of which, Milestone 4, is currently being collected and should be announced within a few days.
Unlike a closed source project that fails to meet its deadlines, the whole world can find out how the Mozilla project is doing. The reports on the unfinished browser are highly promising. This comment from Robin Johansson sums it up well. "People, just keep on making Mozilla and make it as well as you can. Money isn't important. Deadlines are not important. Beating IE is not important. Just good quality is."
Other links to information on this topic:
Dell has bought a piece of Red Hat; they are joining what is becoming a rather crowded club. Information on Dell's Linux moves came in the form of one Reuters article and two press releases; all of them are interesting:
Dell also claimed to be "the first major systems vendor to offer Web ordering of systems with Red Hat Linux already installed." The folks at Penguin Computingtook exception to that claim, and, in typical in-your-face manner, put out a press release of their own disputing it.
The Burlington Coat Factory news is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole thing. Here we have another high-profile deployment in a decidedly non-geek, mission-critical situation. Those who say that Linux is not ready for prime time will have a hard time writing off this one.
Another interesting fact, not pointed out in the press releases, is that all Linux systems sold by Dell come with support by LinuxCare bundled in. This addition is likely to greatly increase the perceived value of these systems among those who are not confident of their ability to deal with Linux - a large percentage of the people who are getting into Linux now. It has the look of a good arrangement for both Dell and LinuxCare.
A lukewarm appraisal by the analysts. D. H. Brown has announcedthe release of their study on Linux. "The study shows that Linux provides a credible solution for four specific application areas - file- and print-sharing or Web server applications; appliance-class systems; Internet Service Providers; and compute nodes in technical computing clusters. Linux also minimizes price and avoids vendor lock-in." Beyond that they were short of positive words; their conclusion is that Linux is not really ready for most enterprise functions.
Al Gore's presidential campaign web site is open source, or so it claims toward the bottom of the front page. He is inviting contributions to the site. It's hard to know whether to be impressed that "open source" is seen to be important at such levels, or whether to just be amused. One wonders if the Open Source Initiative has approved this use of their trademark...
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April 8, 1999