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Netscape's Hail Mary


amie Zawinski had already toiled at two failed start-ups by the time he went to work for Netscape in 1994. Finally, he figured, things would be different. "These guys are going to be so rich, it's not funny," he believed. Not that Zawinski cared about money. Though Silicon Valley is supposed to be the new Hollywood for programmers, where ambitious code-writing kids slave at start-ups with every expectation of retiring by supper, Zawinski is a hacker of the old school. He has always aspired to something grander: to change the world. At the top of his resume, he'd carefully spelled it out: "employment objective: To improve people's lives through software." Zawinski knew that from ones and zeros gorgeous cathedrals could grow, monuments to inspire and empower people. He believed that Netscape and its browser had that potential.

This, as I said, was almost four years ago, when, to all outward appearances, Microsoft was a sleeping giant that hadn't yet awakened to the Internet blooming all around it. So Zawinski and his compadres put in 120-hour weeks. They had no lives. They coded until the sun rose, then slept under their desks. And in October 1994 they launched their killer app, known initially--forgive the hubris--as Mozilla. It was a play on Godzilla, as in "Mozilla will rule the Net."

It did too. While half a dozen other companies offered competing browsers, Mozilla and its successor, Netscape Navigator, quickly became the best way to get around the World Wide Web. It was to the Web what Windows is to PCs; both had an 85% market share.

Then the giant awoke. Fast-forward to late 1996, when Microsoft launched the third revision of its Internet Explorer: it was finally usable. Linked to Windows and bundled with virtually every PC sold, it soon became unavoidable. Netscape's browser revenues went into free fall. It looked as if the company was doomed.

Zawinski and his co-workers had another idea: Don't give away just the Netscape browser, give away the source code too. This is like Coca-Cola's giving away free six-packs and the secret recipe as well, so you can make Coke at home. Here's the reasoning: Microsoft is so much bigger, and can throw so many programmers at any problem, that Netscape's only chance is to harness the talents of the thousands of hackers on the Net who might be willing to improve on the program if they had a stake in it. "I wouldn't characterize the plan as a hail-Mary pass," says Zawinski, which is exactly how I did characterize it. But, he concedes, it does have an element of "I've got this box of old clothes! We can use my grandpa's barn!" In any event, Zawinski last month began hacking away on mozilla.org, the Netscape-backed entity that will organize the Resistance. Perhaps it's not too late to change the world.

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