Happy Birthday, Mozilla - and Thanks for Being Here

Seven years ago, Mozilla 1.0 was launched:

Mozilla.org, the organization that coordinates Mozilla open-source development and provides services to assist the Mozilla community, today announced the release of Mozilla 1.0, the first major-version public release of the Mozilla software. A full-fledged browser suite based on the latest Internet standards as well as a cross-platform toolkit, Mozilla 1.0 is targeted at the developer community and enables the creation of Internet-based applications. Mozilla 1.0 was developed in an open source environment and built by harnessing the creative power of thousands of programmers and tens of thousands of testers on the Internet, incorporating their best enhancements.

"Mozilla.org is excited about releasing the Mozilla 1.0 code and development tools to the open source community, and providing developers with the resources they need to freely create and view the presentation of their content and data on the Web," said Mitchell Baker, Chief Lizard Wrangler at mozilla.org. "As the browser has become the main interface between users and the Web over the past several years, the goal of the Mozilla project is to innovate and enable the creation of standards-compliant technology to keep content on the Web open. As more and more programmers and companies are embracing Mozilla as a strategic technology, Mozilla 1.0 signals the advent of even further dissemination and adoption of open source and standards-based software across the Web."

There's a number of noteworthy points here. The first is that the Mozilla project was originally a browser *suite*, which included an email reader and a chat client as well as a browser. This was a throwback to the old Netscape Communicator suite, on which it was based.

Also interesting to note that Mitchell Baker was the leader of Mozilla, then as now – an indication of the central role she has played in the success of not just Mozilla, but open source too. For, as the second paragraph presciently notes, the browser has become the “main interface between users and the Web” - indeed, it is now arguably the main interface to *computing*, what with the rise of mainstream online services that run entirely in the browser. This makes Mozilla's success all-the-more important.

It is also worth remembering that Mozilla's success was far from certain. In the early days, the project lurched from delay to delay. Jamie Zawinski, the person who registered the mozilla.org domain, captured this time to perfection in a bitter but brilliant essay called “nomo zilla”:

April 1st, 1999 will be my last day as an employee of the Netscape Communications division of America Online, and my last day working for mozilla.org.

Netscape has been a great disappointment to me for quite some time. When we started this company, we were out to change the world. And we did that. Without us, the change probably would have happened anyway, maybe six months or a year later, and who-knows-what would have played out differently. But we were the ones who actually did it. When you see URLs on grocery bags, on billboards, on the sides of trucks, at the end of movie credits just after the studio logos -- that was us, we did that. We put the Internet in the hands of normal people. We kick-started a new communications medium. We changed the world.

But we did that in 1994 and 1995. What we did from 1996 through 1999 was coast along, riding the wave caused by what we did before.

He then goes to sketch the background to the genesis of Mozilla:

In January 1998, Netscape hit one of of its blackest periods -- the first round of layoffs. It was quite a wake-up call. Netscape, darling of the computer industry, the fastest-growing company in the world, was not invincible.

More concretely, this was when we realized that we had finally lost the so called “browser war.” Microsoft had succeeded in destroying that market. It was no longer possible for anyone to sell web browsers for money. Our first product, our flagship product, was heading quickly toward irrelevance.

And then the unexpected happened: the executive staff decided to release the source code. I won't re-hash the history of the creation of the mozilla.org project, but suffice it to say that, coming as it did only two weeks after the layoffs, it was a beacon of hope to me. Here was Netscape doing something daring again: here was the company making the kind of change in strategy that I never thought they'd be able to make again. An act of desperation? Perhaps, but still a very interesting and unexpected one. It was so crazy, it just might work. I took my cue and ran with it, registering the domain that night, designing the structure of the organization, writing the first version of the web site, and, along with my co-conspirators, explaining to room after room of Netscape employees and managers how free software worked, and what we had to do to make it work.

… I saw mozilla.org as a chance to jettison an escape pod -- to give the code we had all worked so hard on a chance to live on beyond the death of Netscape, and chance to continue to have some relevance to the world.

And yet, even that hope proved illusory:

For whatever reason, the project was not adopted by the outside. It remained a Netscape project. Now, this was still a positive change -- it meant that Netscape was developing this project out in the open, in full view of the world, and the world was giving important and effective feedback. Netscape made better decisions as a result.

But it wasn't enough.

The truth is that, by virtue of the fact that the contributors to the Mozilla project included about a hundred full-time Netscape developers, and about thirty part-time outsiders, the project still belonged wholly to Netscape -- because only those who write the code truly control the project.

And here we are, a year later. And we haven't even shipped a beta yet.

His concluding words offer an important insight that many have still not learned:

My biggest fear, and part of the reason I stuck it out as long as I have, is that people will look at the failures of mozilla.org as emblematic of open source in general. Let me assure you that whatever problems the Mozilla project is having are not because open source doesn't work. Open source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea. If there's a cautionary tale here, it is that you can't take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of "open source," and have everything magically work out. Software is hard. The issues aren't that simple.

People still naively believe that sprinkling dead or dying projects with the “magic pixie dust" of open source will resurrect them; too often, opening up code is the last refuge of the desperate. And yet despite that dispiriting fact, the eventual and inarguable success of Mozilla today shows that the open source development methodology *can* work, and that it can take on proprietary incumbents and win. Perhaps most importantly, it shows that however unpromising they may look to begin with, free software projects can survive and thrive given enough determined people willing to put in the hard work to make that happen.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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