Mozilla and the Open Source Browser Bonanza

Even if you don't remember the birth of Mozilla 15 years ago, you are certainly benefitting from its consequences. For, back then, the company that invented the Web as a mass medium, Netscape, was in its death throes, and looked likely to take Web browser choice with it.

Netscape had begun life as an innovative startup that changed not only how people used the Web, but also how people sold software – essentially giving away its Netscape Navigator browser for free, and making money be selling associated products. Then it fell victim to Microsoft's belated recognition that the Internet was the future, and not just something for academics, as a senior Microsoft had assured me shortly before (he, of course, wanted people to use Microsoft's proprietary network, MSN.) That was partly because Microsoft played its usual games, building on its strength on the desktop, and its established relationships with third-party vendors of software and services.

In the famous 1998 antitrust action, this dominance on the desktop was found to be monopolistic, and Microsoft's actions to defend that monopoly, including bundling its Internet Explorer browser with Windows, were considered an abuse of that monopoly. A change of President in the US meant that Microsoft got off with little more than a slap on the wrist, but by then Netscape was no longer any kind of threat.

Its defeat was only partly because of Microsoft's actions: Netscape's management made a number of missteps that led to it losing its hold on the browser market. And without that, its server sales were less attractive – not least because the open source Apache server was already gaining ground rapidly in the late 1990s. Just before the antitrust action against Microsoft began, it was clear to everyone that Netscape and its browser were doomed.

The question was: what could be done to salvage something from the wreckage? The answer, revealed on 22 January 1998, turned out to be surprising:

Netscape Communications Corporation (NASDAQ: NSCP) today announced bold plans to make the source code for the next generation of its highly popular Netscape Communicator client software available for free licensing on the Internet. The company plans to post the source code beginning with the first Netscape Communicator 5.0 developer release, expected by the end of the first quarter of 1998. This aggressive move will enable Netscape to harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet by incorporating their best enhancements into future versions of Netscape's software. This strategy is designed to accelerate development and free distribution by Netscape of future high-quality versions of Netscape Communicator to business customers and individuals, further seeding the market for Netscape's enterprise solutions and Netcenter business.

And thus was born Mozilla.

Five years ago, I wrote a short history of how Mozilla and then Firefox came to be, so I'll not repeat it here. Instead, I'd like to note that both of those projects were browsers, and both were trying to save the Web from turning into a Microsoft-only fiefdom. Mozilla failed in that, but from its ashes Phoenix – the first name of what became Firebird and then finally Firefox – arose, and succeeded.

That emphasises how the browser lies at the heart of Mozilla. And so even while working on projects like Firefox OS that are exciting and potentially important, Mozilla must ensure that its core browser technology moves with the times, just as it did when it turned Netscape's code into Mozilla, and when it shifted to Firefox. That's what makes this announcement about its "next-generation Web browser engine" so crucial:

Mozilla's mission is about advancing the Web as a platform for all. At Mozilla Research, we're supporting this mission by experimenting with what's next when it comes to the core technology powering the Web browser. We need to be prepared to take advantage of tomorrow's faster, multi-core, heterogeneous computing architectures. That's why we've recently begun collaborating with Samsung on an advanced technology Web browser engine called Servo.

Servo is an attempt to rebuild the Web browser from the ground up on modern hardware, rethinking old assumptions along the way. This means addressing the causes of security vulnerabilities while designing a platform that can fully utilize the performance of tomorrow's massively parallel hardware to enable new and richer experiences on the Web. To those ends, Servo is written in Rust, a new, safe systems language developed by Mozilla along with a growing community of enthusiasts.

We are now pleased to announce with Samsung that together we are bringing both the Rust programming language and Servo, the experimental web browser engine, to Android and ARM. This is an exciting step in the evolution of both projects that will allow us to start deeper research with Servo on mobile.

As that emphasises, this is about a browser architecture for the future. And its collaboration with Samsung to bring the new Servo browser engine to Android and ARM underlines that the future is mobile – smartphones and tablets. That's eminently sensible if Gartner's forecasts are even vaguely accurate (don't miss the accompanying graphical representation of what it thinks will happen):

by 2015 shipments of tablets will outstrip those of conventional PCs such as desktops and notebooks, as Android and Apple's iOS become increasingly dominant in the overall operating system picture. Android in particular will be installed on more than a billion devices shipped in 2014

Of course, Google, too, is well aware of where things are going. So it's no surprise that it, too, is revamping its browser technology:

today, we are introducing Blink, a new open source rendering engine based on WebKit.

This was not an easy decision. We know that the introduction of a new rendering engine can have significant implications for the web. Nevertheless, we believe that having multiple rendering engines—similar to having multiple browsers—will spur innovation and over time improve the health of the entire open web ecosystem.

The point about the need for multiple rendering engines is well made, since Apple also uses WebKit, and Opera recently announced it would adopt it too. Opera has now said that it will be using Blink, which means that there will soon be no less than six main browser environments: Gecko (as used in Firefox); KHTML (used in KDE's Konqueror) WebKit (a fork of KHTML, used by Apple and Google currently); Microsoft's Trident; as well as the new Servo and Blink. Wikipedia has a helpful comparison of the various layout engines and which platforms they currently run on.

That browser bonanza – all based on open source code, be it noted, with one regrettable exception – is a wonderful testimony to what the Mozilla project has achieved in its 15 years of life. So in wishing Mozilla many happy returns, we should bear in mind just how much we owe it, and how different the online world would look today had it never existed, and had it not fought constantly to preserve the open Web and open standards through free software.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon