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why mozilla matters

The author of this happy tale is Paul Phillips, CTO of go2net, creator of the Useless Pages, owner of, author of Boa, operator of,, and various other domains, and all-around nice guy. He's also an expert at writing about himself in the third person.

It's no exaggeration for me to say that the creation of and the accompanying events are the most important developments in software since I started paying attention to software development. This enormous company, this grown-up David, a software powerhouse by anyone's definition (no matter who might be snacking on their lunch at this moment) has taken their flagship product, the web browser that put them on the map, and they are giving away the source.

Those of you that have grown too close to the situation may not appreciate the brazenness, the audacity, the iconoclasm necessary for Netscape to dismantle the prison of source code secrecy. It's one thing to challenge conventional wisdom, but it's quite another to line conventional wisdom up against the wall and pump it full of lead. Source code is supposed to be a software company's lifeblood, its only way to differentiate itself from its competitors. Although there are those of us who understand why the source release makes sense, the perception among the masses that the source code is the keys to the store makes this move risky, doubly so for a public company with thousands of investors and constant media attention.

This is the message you must understand. The project is terribly important for the state of ``open-source software'' [1], because despite the many worthy open-source software projects in relatively wide use (Linux, Perl, and Apache, to name a few), the success of open-source software is going to be measured in the public eye by this project. And it's going to be an uphill battle. The source release is commonly viewed in the media as one driven by desperation, not inspiration. The announcement was made months in advance of the source release, giving everyone plenty of time to build skepticism. The entire bombshell would have made much more sense a year or two ago when Netscape was gaining momentum rather than losing it.

All of this only highlights why it is so important that you, the software developer, do whatever you can to contribute to

Let me warn you that you are about to experience unabashed evangelism. If children are in the room, have them look away now. It's my belief that all of this is exactly as consequential as I've made it out to be so far, and I'm not done yet. I'm not getting paid a dime to gush like this and I have no ulterior motive other than advancing open-source software as a viable software development paradigm. Without taking away from the significant progress made by GNU in open-source software, I assert that is potentially more significant in the practical advancement of open-source than GNU has been.

If you care about source code openness, that's a big deal.

From a utilitarian perspective, it is irrelevant what you think of Netscape's code or their programmers or their business practices or whether you want them to succeed or fail in general. The material issue is that a loud success for will be a triumphant victory for open-source software, and it will be imitated. Wouldn't you like the source code to Sun's JDK? To Qualcomm's Eudora? To Adobe's Acrobat? While there is no guarantee that any of these companies will wake up and smell the CVS repository, you can be sure there are people inside each of these companies ready and able to lobby for an open source code model. A successful project could be the lever that moves a dozen previously immobile stones.

I have no affiliation with Netscape. I'm telling you, from one lover of open-source software to another, that this is the best chance that you may ever see to advance the software industry toward more open source code. Open source isn't going away if fails, but certain side effects will be unavoidable. A thousand suits on six continents will remember only this message: the open-source model doesn't work. In the public mind, open-source software will continue to be grouped with screen savers and cheesy VGA games until the memory of can be overcome.

The folks at didn't win an election to become the flag bearers for open-source code, but Netscape had an opportunity to create the highest profile open-source software project in history -- and they did. It doesn't matter that we didn't choose the specifics. It is to the advantage of every software developer to make work, to make it work for the open-source code world and to make it work for Netscape, so other companies have every reason to follow suit. Maximize the opportunity here or you'll be kicking yourself for years to come. If we squander this chance and, ten years from now, software developers are all still locked in their respective corporate source prisons, I'm going to hunt you down and ask you what you did to help Mozilla. And God help you if you can only jabber some nonsense about expecting someone else to carry the ball.

We could do a lot worse than working on one of the most widely deployed programs in history. There are few programs that are equally invaluable to the most hard-core power user and the net-illiterate. Is there any worker in the information age who doesn't now or won't soon use a web browser every single day? Forty million people? How about four hundred million? Every one of them running software that's been directly influenced by you, and not just because it came bundled with the OS. Are you getting it yet?

A web browser is large and diverse. There are dozens of features you could be working on and a thousand bugs you could be fixing (and if all goes well, those numbers will be reversed in short order.) Whether your forte is network utilization or internationalization or GUI development or portability abstractions or optimization or caching or embedded interpreters, a web browser has it all, or as close to it all as a single program is likely to come. The visibility, scope, and significance of the project is going to attract serious programming talent, talent you could be working with directly on your favorite features. Do I have to spell it out for you?

If you know enough to read this essay then you know enough to contribute! Create order from chaos. Write code, document code, track bugs, fix bugs, organize your fellows, galvanize them into action! Stare at a source module until you know it better than the author, conduct usability testing with your sixty year old mother and eleven year old niece, port Mozilla to the BeOS! Sacrifice one night a week to write code, give a lecture at the local university, plant the seeds of open source in your own boss's mind! Why am I so enthusiastic? The better question is, why aren't you?

"Open-source software" is the term Netscape prefers to "free software" and one I don't mind using. The "free" in free software has long bred confusion as people naturally comingle the concepts of free speech and free beer. At least "open source" is descriptive and unlikely to be misinterpreted. Of course if I weren't writing this to be hosted at, I'd say "free software" out of years of habit, but I'm being accommodating.