Netscape's Gecko: Trying to Resume the Fight with Microsoft

Internet pioneer and current America Online (AOL) subsidiary Netscape Communications Corp. (www.netscape.com) can be credited with helping to usher the open source software (OSS) movement into the limelight.

Sure, the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, and Perl scripting language are significant OSS environments. But OSS didn't get its first taste of mainstream exposure until Netscape decided to open up its source code and announced its Mozilla open source development project in January 1998.

The result, after more than two years in the making, is Gecko, the open source browser engine at the heart of Netscape's version 6.0 Web browser. When it ships, Netscape 6.0 will be the first Netscape browser to be based on code developed at least in part by the Mozilla.org project. Netscape 6.0 will succeed version 4.7 of the current Navigator browser. Plans to produce an interim build of the Navigator browser -- to be called version 5.0 -- were scrapped, according to Netscape officials.

Gecko advocates say that the new browser engine is revolutionary because it provides Web developers with a standard framework to which they can write Web content and Web applications. Moreover, supporters argue, because it's open source, developers can custom-tailor Gecko code for their own use, creating, in effect, highly customized applications with the Gecko engine embedded within.

Gecko's most powerful selling point is its extensive cross-platform support. This could help Netscape regain the upper hand in its long-running rivalry with Microsoft Corp.'s (www.microsoft.com) Internet Explorer (IE). IE 5.0 currently supports Windows 3.11, Windows 9x, Windows NT/2000, the MacOS, and some flavors of Unix. Gecko, on the other hand, is slated to support just about every existing operating system platform, as well as Internet appliances such as handheld devices and cellular phones.

Gecko and Netscape 6.0 also purport to be a completely standards-compliant browsing environment -- another possible selling point in light of the World Wide Web Consortium's (www.w3.org) decision to publicly take Microsoft to task last month over its failure to support cascading style sheets and other Internet standards in its planned next-generation Internet Explorer 5.5 Web browser.

But the forthcoming browser battle may, in fact, wind up not being much of a fight at all. Some industry watchers characterize the Mozilla.org development project as a less-than-successful venture.

"It failed miserably," says Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. (www.gigaweb.com). "The problem is that when you have a broad market product like this, you don't want to experiment with a new concept. You want to make sure that a concept is validated before you roll it into your broader market product."

Netscape's Mozilla.org project effectively damaged the company's rapport with its mainstream installed base, Enderle adds. This is the base that made the company, for a time, a darling of the comparatively minuscule and decidedly anti-mainstream OSS community. "They in effect tanked their own installed base by taking this new approach and trying to roll it into a product," he concludes. "As far as the public is concerned, that [OSS] stuff was always a little out there."

Add the fact that in spite of its open source roots, Netscape 6.0 is unmistakably an AOL product. The next-generation Navigator browser will include integrated support for AOL's Instant Messenger, as well as the Buddy List technology that enhances the Instant Messenger experience. Aside from exposing the heavy hand of AOL, analyst firm Zona Research Inc. (www.zonaresearch.com) says Netscape 6.0's AOL-enhanced features also serve to undermine its OSS credentials.

"We are troubled by Netscape's decision to feature AOL's Buddy List and Instant Messenger functions so prominently, since AOL can hardly be considered a poster child for the open sharing of technology," Zona opined in a published report. "Indeed, the prominence of these popular AOL functions leads us to wonder why AOL did not simply release the Netscape browser under its own brand since it owns the technology anyway."

(For the developers' perspective of Gecko, see Eric Anderson's column.)