Netscape Frees Communicator 5.0 Code
by Chris Oakes
Most software companies consider their source code to be top secret, guarding the programmed gears and axles of their computers like the keys to a nuclear arsenal. But Netscape Communications today joined that renegade group that wants to be perceived as friendly, open, and believing that code should be free.
This morning, Mountain View headquarters announced it would freely license not only the current versions of Netscape Navigator and Communicator, but also make the source code for the products freely available on the Net, starting with Communicator 5.0, due in the first quarter of 1998.
"If this is true, this is an astoundingly bold move," said Brian Behlendorf, co-founder and chief technology officer at Organic Online, and a founder of the Apache Web server project, a long-standing, collaborative effort to create free Web page serving software. "If they make a good commitment to fostering a developer community - in integrating third-party patches, bug fixes, and new features - then the Communicator product will be an amazing piece of software," he said via email.
By making the code free, Netscape hopes to encourage developers and system administrators to adopt its browser, knowing that they can tweak it to fit their needs or fix things without waiting for the company to post a patch. The company points to the success of the popular Apache software and Linux operating system, the source code of which has long been in the public domain.
"We're saying we can make that model a huge commercial success," said Dave Bottoms, a Netscape spokesperson. "This is one of the only ways of scale to compete against Microsoft," he said.
While Microsoft has been giving away its browser and thereby gaining market share, its source code remains under proprietary lock and key. Netscape has until now charged between US$39 and $79 for the Navigator browser and its integrated suite of browser and email, Communicator. Its announcement today to release both the products and the source code free of charge is a dramatic about-face, which Netscape hopes will help it retain its majority of the market.
The company says with this bold move it hopes to "harness the creative power of thousands of Internet developers" - and thereby seed the market for its enterprise software and Netcenter online service. By encouraging developers to incorporate their own enhancements into the software, Netscape expects to see accelerated development and distribution of its products.
But, say developers, it's important that Netscape follow through in its effort to reach out to them, as developers now will be essentially partners in the development of Netscape's software.
"This is not a slam dunk," Behlendorf said. "Doing collaborative software requires a lot of skills that typical software engineering does not."
The source code must be well documented - and supported by a development team "with enough humility to admit to being wrong every now and then," Behlendorf added.
In addition to a hope that Netscape will also release the source code for its Java Virtual Machine, Behlendorf credits the change in policy with code that has always been free.
"I think it's the success of public source code projects like Apache, like Linux and FreeBSD, that helped convince Netscape of the value of source code availability."
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