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Simple Solutions (Slashdot Editorial)
Contributed by CmdrTaco on Mon Jan 12 at 8:50AM EST
[Netscape] From the editorials dept
This is the first of hopefully many Editorials. In addition to just reporting the news, the Slashdot Team really wishes to try to put out new ideas, or share other information that our readers may find helpful, interesting, or entertaining.

We're standing at an amazing crossroad here. The Free Software Foundation, and especially the Linux OS have gained amazing ground. The mainstream press (eg the ZiffDavis marketing monopoly) actually now regularly acknowledge Linux along side MacOS and Windows as being a "Real" Operating system.

And then there is the browser world, where the race was once one horse, then hundreds, and now 2. Microsoft and Netscape have been battling it out for some time now, and Netscape's once unstoppable 70% market share has begun crumbling.

Meanwhile the Free Software world is facing a battle of its own. The Commercial browser world has been reduced to the big ones, but the free world is producing Mneumonic, Gzilla, and various other smaller projects. Many talented programmers slave away on these products, but each day, Microsoft gains ground.

Add the final piece of data to the mix:Netscape is losing money as well as browser market share. What's a company to do? Maybe the solution is simple:GPL Netscape's Source Code.

So now that you've stopped laughing, let's talk about this seriously for a moment. Let's look at why Netscape should seriously consider this:

  • Talented programmers from around the world would actively improve Netscape's browser. The Free Software Movement has proven that if some control is enforced at the center (eg Linus) programs can develop communally. Netscape would not have to pay most of the development cost of their software. Coordination, and key programmers would be essential, but minor once coders around the world join in.
  • Netscape needs browser dominance to fuel its server market, and to remain synonymous with the Internet. If current trends continue, MS will = the Internet in another year.
  • Netscape is losing money on the browser market. They need to release their browser for free to compete with Microsoft anyway.
  • Source code would allow compilation on other systems- say a Pentium optimized version, or whatever other optimizations become available for platform X.
  • Excellent Publicity generated by such an original move would earn Netscape respect from the Free Software junkies who often have somewhat negative feelings towards Netscape. These Free Software Junkies are gaining control of much of the world's IS departments, and Netscape's good name will get them places in these corporate worlds.

    So that's all well and good for Netscape, but what about the rest of us. Netscape has taken a lot of heat for its gapping shortcomings. In particular its bloated size and slow performance. Why would the Free Software World want to take on this project?

  • GPL means we would have a state of the art free browser.
  • Netscape could be ported to GTK or Qt for faster performance and lower memory requirements than Motif.
  • Various web browser efforts could focus on a single project (which could have many faces) which already has so many of the features they need. Instead of these projects dividing the effort, they could unify.
  • The superior programming talents of the world's programmers would make Netscape the superior browser, which would win over converts back from Microsoft even on Wintel boxes where MS is gaining support.
  • New browsers derived from Netscape for more specific tasks could share things like an HTML rendering engine for commonality.

    Now I realize that there are problems. Large parts of Netscape's code aren't really Netscape's to give away. The "about:" screen of Netscape Communicator lists 12 companies besides Netscape including Apple, Macromedia, Symantec and many others. Perhaps these modules are removed. Perhaps these modules could also GPLd. Netscape does need to maintain the primary code base, and finding someone with the charisma of Linus to steerhead the development of code from hundreds of people will me a challange. Then there are problems with large portions of the Free Software world disliking Netscape. I really hope this could change, especially if they were given the opportunity to maintain it.

    I really think this could be the answer to a lot of problems. With the power of an Internet full of programmers, even Microsoft's Billions of R&D; dollars would be threatened. And we would be guaranteed a real choice even if IE4 becomes the standard on Windows boxes.

    What do you think?

    by Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda

    [ Previous | List Articles Related to this One | More Articles By CmdrTaco | Next ]

    Reader Comments

    this editorial
    Mon Jan 12 at 9:07AM EST

    I still judge it an impressive task to convince the _executives_ of netscape to do this. Sure linux is getting some support, but I still acknowledge that a very large part of that still lies solely with the technocrats.

    Craig Maloney
    Mon Jan 12 at 9:19AM EST

    Perhaps the parts that are not GPL'ed can be distributed in the same way that xanim distributes the non-free parts (namely, the Indeo libs).

    It's an interesting concept. Maybe Netscape could charge for binary releases, and support only those binary releases, while at the same time release the source code for public consumption.

    Agreed, this would be a feat to get past the bigwigs, but what a bonus it would be to developers and Netscape.

    My Name
    Mon Jan 12 at 9:25AM EST

    This concept has already been proven by Caldera and Red Hat. Why pay if you can get it for free? For support, free help for stupid people, etc. The binary modules part of XAnim works fantastic and as I read the article that was the first solution I thought of :P It will probably NOT happen, since companies are rare to be swayed by mere Linux people, and most of the browser market they are targeting is in Windows, not Linux or other Unices. But it's worth a shot.

    Your Name
    Mon Jan 12 at 9:33AM EST

    Navigator?!? We already have enough bloated applications in our free operating systems (GNU EMACS, for example) -- if we write a web browser it is better to build it from scratch than from shakey foundations. IMO, Netscape programmers are the worst I've ever seen.

    That's excellent idea
    Tuomo Pyh�l�
    Mon Jan 12 at 9:47AM EST

    I'm sure this would lead to faster development, more robust browser and faster code. It would surely decrease the costs of netscape corp. to develop Navigator.

    There are many problems. First of all the code which netscape has licensed from 3rd parties. These probably couldn't be distributed. I would also guess that source must be horrible and in the beginning developers would only clean it up.

    GPL'd Navigator could surely compete against MSIE a lot better than the current Navigator. This important, because i'm sure i f MS gets enough market share on browsers and servers it'll start making it's own proprietary undocumented standards which is a BAD THING[TM].

    Mon Jan 12 at 10:32AM EST

    While I have to agree this is a good idea, even the RIght Thing To Do, I doubt that it will ever come to pass without Netscape actually collapsing in the browser market. Executives usually shudder at the word "free", and having Netscape relinquish all control over their product would doubtless set them off giggling. There's a big gap between the idology of the FSF and corporate industry. The arguments for openness and GPL can be applied to any giant: Microsoft, XFree, Adobe, etc. While it's an interesting idea, and would make our world a better place, I doubt it ever happening.

    Large Project
    Mon Jan 12 at 11:06AM EST

    Netscape programmers are the worst you've ever seen? Come on, i'm sure you've seen much worse examples of programming ... take my old cash register program, for instance (the one where you could only perform 3 transactions before it would calculate the total cost :) )

    Anyways, GPLing Netscape would be a great idea for us Linux/Unix users, but maybe not for the rest of them. I know that you would probably have very few problems convincing a lot of GPL developers to work on the NS source code, but how many people do you know who would try to maintain the Windows source code? Or the Macintosh source code for that matter? Even the source code for other Unixes might lag behind a little due to lack of interest in these "non-GPL" platforms (for lack of a better word)

    Just a thought, anyways...

    Why GPL?
    Your Name
    Mon Jan 12 at 11:12AM EST

    Why GPL it? How about someting a little more flexible like freeware.

    Mon Jan 12 at 11:17AM EST

    A few things.

    1). Eerybody seems to be forgetting that increased NS distribution would help the other 'premier' NS business, servers/business services/etc.

    2). Haven't I heard somewhere that NS was looking at freewaring navigator anyway?

    3). The 3rd party code should be distributed as object code, it's beeen done before.

    4). The problem is the Wintel stuff, it really is unheard of in that market. And most of the people good enough to do the type of development we're talking about don't give a damn about developing for the wintel platform. This, I think would be the biggest problem.

    It might be possible, but it would take a level of enlightenment (no pun intented ;-) at NS that I don't know exists.


    What about the Java-gator
    Thomas Enebo
    Mon Jan 12 at 11:39AM EST

    I thought that Netscape was already making their browser entirely in Java...Don't they have some agreement with Sun already signed? If they do this then they will have a difficult time GPL'ing this code since it will be most likely some derivative of the HotJava browser.

    If they really do move to Java, then they would not consider this proposal. On the other hand, if they move to Java the current development tree of Navigator may not be that useful to them anymore....They may consider giving it out eventually...

    Just a Random Thought...
    Mon Jan 12 at 11:49AM EST

    Let's just say that Netscape did GPL their code and most of the GNU community did make major improvements on Netscape's foundation, making a N5 that overshot anyone's expectations...

    Wouldn't that warrant MS to make the same move in order to gain their market share back? Or, as a major software firm, would it hold back, fearing profit loss? (Like they'd lose anything in the first place... =) )

    Actually, MS under GPL would be something I'd just like t' see in th' first place. *snickers* =)

    Justin Burket
    Mon Jan 12 at 11:51AM EST

    I think the primary problem i can see would be profit's for netscape, if I remeber correctly tbey sell it to large corps and anywhere where it isn't used for "educational" use (I forget the other condition), so if we where to GPL the thing how could they sell it?

    big problem with client GPL
    Oliver Soell
    Mon Jan 12 at 12:03PM EST

    I think that the big problem with NS putting their client under the GPL is that the free community sometimes goes "too far" in the eyes of the commercial corporations. For instance, KDE is a great example, people have scorned it for relying on a commercial library. Now, Netscape has always made its money in the server market, and when they sell their servers, they recommend that you run Communicator as the browser for configuration, and I'm sure they would not want to supply and support the community-developed version for their paying server customers. And having a stripped down version would be no good, that means that you'd have two browsers, and that's what we're all trying to stay away from.

    Unless NS plans on never supporting Communicator again, they cannot put it under the GPL. they could put it under a different license and just make sure all the patches people provide are checked for consistency and then rolled into the app, that would be okay.


    Invalid Assumptions
    Mon Jan 12 at 12:31PM EST

    The assumption that GPLing navigator would bond the various web browser developers into one coherent global team is a bit naive. These people have decided to work on their own projects for a variety of reasons, one of which is probably that they want control over how the thing develops. Navigator being a 'finished' project doesn't allow that and how sure can you be that their source base would be worth working with?

    Their will always be different groups of people doing the same work while there are egos to be nurtured and different ideas. GPLing navigator won't change that.

    But it would be good for a laugh :)

    Better browsers...
    Bevan Schroeder
    Mon Jan 12 at 12:37PM EST

    I don't think NS is worth all this brainpower to try to save. They haven't done a thing to improve their browser in the last two versions; it's only gotten more bloated, as has the company. You don't have to be free to compete with MSIE; you have to be COMPETITIVE. I'm leading up to a mention of Opera ( it does everything better than NS and MSIE, and involved some genuine innovation, which neither of those companies is any longer capable of. That, or the free browsers built from zilch like gzilla, are where we should put our efforts.

    Two points
    Paul Kelly
    Mon Jan 12 at 3:03PM EST

    First Point: Netscape isn't going to want to release control of their baby. They would probably want to keep the lead programmer in their employ. Otherwise the browser would be completely out of their hands and wouldn't be doing as much to help their server business as it might. How would the development community react to that? It would effectively turn into volunteers working for free for a commercial company.

    Second Point: To Build A Better Browser I think it's probably wise to build from the ground up. Communicator seems to be as resource hungry - if not more so - than Microsoft's offering. It's also based around Motif. Not in itself a bad thing, now that Lesstif is around and useful, but I'm sure there's a good reason why KDE, Gnome etc. aren't using it.

    Old Versions
    Toby Reed
    Mon Jan 12 at 3:11PM EST

    I think it is unlikely that NS will release source for Communicator, etc etc etc. But I *DO* think they should definately release sources for Netscape 1.0 and Netscape 2.0, if not 3.0. This would be benefictial so we could at least cut the bloat out of them and fix all the bugs in them and have SOMETHING to use. Personally I liked Netscape 1.0 better than 2.0, 2.0 better than 3.0 and 3.0 much better than Communicator. Unfortunately, 1.0 doesn't support all the stuff I wish it did, so I have to use 3.0 at least. But Communicator has few advantages for me over 3.0, it just looks different, has more bloat, and junky integrated mail/news readers. The biggest problem with this approach would be that there is no incentive that I can think of right now for Netscape to release the source to these older browsers, and that it would probably HURT business because of the poor coding style :)

    Joe Boe
    Mon Jan 12 at 3:47PM EST

    Have you seen IBM give away OS2 source code yet? And we are talking about an abandoned product line for IBM. So don't hold your breath for Netscape to do so. Also with so many talented programmers out there wich have given us such advanced pieces of code as the kernel itself, WINE, DOSEMU and many many more. It is just a matter of getting organised to get a browser that blows away either one of MS or NS browsers.

    PS: I too don't like my Netscape Navigator in Linux The very least they could do is take out that evil bug that makes me restart the browser after 3 hours or so of use t to free up memory..... Any Cure for this allready available? Also out of the alternative Linux X11 browsers which is the most feature full wich could get a chance of subst my NS browser???

    Reality Check and the best alternative Browser
    Joe Boe
    Mon Jan 12 at 3:48PM EST

    Have you seen IBM give away OS2 source code yet? And we are talking about an abandoned product line for IBM. So don't hold your breath for Netscape to do so. Also with so many talented programmers out there wich have given us such advanced pieces of code as the kernel itself, WINE, DOSEMU and many many more. It is just a matter of getting organised to get a browser that blows away either one of MS or NS browsers.

    PS: I too don't like my Netscape Navigator in Linux The very least they could do is take out that evil bug that makes me restart the browser after 3 hours or so of use t to free up memory..... Any Cure for this allready available? Also out of the alternative Linux X11 browsers which is the most feature full wich could get a chance of subst my NS browser???

    The Browser Market
    Mon Jan 12 at 4:05PM EST

    2 things I want to mention here:

    1) I hope it doesn't turn out that way, but I don't like Opera Software's chances of survival. MS is giving away their browser free, and if NS does the same Opera is finished. NS and MSIE make most of their money in Web servers and what-not ... Opera makes their money off of browers.

    2) I definitely disagree with those who say that Netscape hasn't come up with any innovative ideas. How many browsers before NS had things like URL completion, for example. Of course, now MSIE has it, but these features are just a carbon copy of NS's new features (sort of a follow-the- leader thing giong here, which I don't necessarily condemn up to a certain point)

    3) The "Java-gator" will be interesting to see, but Aurora is their next big project, I think. A Java brower would be interesting if they could pull it off. Let's hope the brower is "thin"

    Rob should send it to NS
    Alex Bischoff
    Mon Jan 12 at 5:16PM EST

    I think Rob should send this editorial to Netscape... It couldn't hurt ;).

    Complete Rewrite
    Mon Jan 12 at 5:18PM EST

    What navigator needs is a complete rewrite. I gather that it is still using some of the same code from v1.0. I might be right about this. I believe, despite the hard work involved, that companies should make a habit of rewriting their software every few versions or so.


    Opera survival?
    Chris Lawrence
    Mon Jan 12 at 6:00PM EST

    If Opera is truly interested in making a decent amount of money, they're either going to have to build up market share on platforms that MS and NS don't truly support (and I'll put Linux in there for both companies, since the NS memory requirements are obscene... XEmacs is smaller, and it can do a heck of a lot more than Communicator can, even if it isn't as pretty), or they're going to have to team up with a bigger player. Solution 1 looks unlikely based on their public comments (they may support BeOS and Linux eventually, but they're going for platforms already targeted by NS and MS on the first wave) and solution 2 isn't likely, considering that all the major content and access providers have already chosen IE or NS.

    The only non-IE/NS browsers that have decent market share on their platform are the ones on platforms that MS and NS haven't ported to (NeXT, Amiga, Atari ST, non-Intel Linux, etc.). Even on Linux/Intel, the vast majority of users use NS, and that won't change until there is a better free browser on every Linux CD-ROM.

    GPL N3 ... keep c4 ... i don't want it anyway :)
    Carlos Morgado
    Mon Jan 12 at 8:49PM EST

    I think GPLing the "old" product maybe the best way of looking at this. Netscape will not GPL the whole communicator thingie. It's too riskie for them. It might turn out a big mess ... the derived browsers could turn out much better than the netscape product and that would look bad :)

    Anyway ... who wants to build on communicator anyway ?? it's too bulky to derive anything really usuable.

    Now Mozilla3 is another deal. I use it. I like it. I would like it better with less bugs. I would get some of my time into coding some stuff on it. And anyway netscape isn't suposed to make more money out of it anyway :))

    Now ... why is NS loosing share ? C4 sucks :) It looks and feels a lot like exploder. So why not get the real thing says M$ (or should say if they weren't so dumb :) ))


    GPL IE
    Piotr Mitros
    Tue Jan 13 at 12:11AM EST

    I don't think GPLing Netscape would help much. It's really very crappy code and in need of a total rewrite. It's based on Motif. Overall, MSIE would still win out under Windows, and chances are a lot of people would make new, incompatible versions (knowing the Windows developer community). Netscape is, overall, just too braindead a company to do that and manage it well. It would probably loose control of Netscape.

    On the other hand (and this is something I've thought about before reading this article), think of what would happen if Microsoft decided to GPL MS IE. It would probably have support under Unix from both, the free software and the corporate crowds. It would reach market standard. Although I hate MS as much as anybody, I could not thing of a compelling reason why I would not use a GPLed IE.

    Netscape Solution?
    Tue Jan 13 at 5:17AM EST

    Mebbe Netscape need to take Communicator and break it up into parts before it'll be worth while considering it for anything like GPL. Even then, GPL might not be the best solution.. but....

    How about all the libraries? Sure the libraries that are written by other companies could be left as they are, or re-written and replaced.. But the current ones written by Netscape could be more easily be GPL'd, and it's more likely that a bug in a library will produce more disasterous results.

    Sure, Netscape might need to be broken down into more components, but this should help the control. It also could make small version increments that take "years" to download a thing of the past. Just grab the latest libraries.

    Write a spec, adhere to the interface, change it when you go up a major version if need be... It also means that basically, under Wintel, you'll have re-written dll's, or dll updates...

    Anyhoo, enuff of my rambling *grin*

    It could improve matters ...
    Michael Smith
    Tue Jan 13 at 6:31AM EST

    Well if Netscape were to control the distribution of Commincator in the same way Linus runs the linux development, I'm sure we'd see some noticable improvements, as parts of the software community rewrote and improved bits here and there.

    I don't agree that all the development would go into the unix versions (though they obviously need it most at the moment). Look at apache which is now incorporating windows support. It doesn't seem to be causing major problems.


    N L Root
    Tue Jan 13 at 10:25AM EST

    I think it's really a non-issue as far as Netscape is concerned. As a public corporation, their primary responsibility is to deliver a good return on investment to their shareholders. Convincing thousands of shareholders that the best course for the company is to give up and starting giving away the product that identifies the corporation would be no small task.

    The second real problem is that no public corporation wants to be responsible for a product they don't make. Would you expect Netscape to continue phone support for Communicator? Would you except them to still put their logo on it? What happens if someone embeds a trojan horse in a version of the product that destroys someone's personal property- should Netscape be liable?

    Starting a company based on a GPLed product is one thing( ala RedHat) ; slapping the GPL on the previously-existing flagship product of a public corporation is quite another.

    $0.02 - N

    Opera Software
    Tue Jan 13 at 12:47PM EST

    I dunno about Opera Software going under: they support a lot of users who can't use the big 2 (eg visually impaired) on MS Windows; they involve their users a lot in product design (I was one once); and Project Magic looks likely to give them the first _decent_ browser on a couple of platforms (BeOS, Amiga). As NS knows, that can count for a lot...

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