Thoughts On the Recent Unpleasantness

Well, since I’ve been such a fervent Mozilla advocate in this space, I figured I should say a few words about the stuff that went down last week for Moz, and what I think it means for the future. (Since it all happened while I was off on vacation, I’m playing catch-up, I know — bear with me.)

In case you haven’t heard, there was a pretty significant shake-up at AOL/Time Warner, the corporate parent of Netscape, which was the primary backer of the Mozilla project. They essentially killed the Netscape division, laying off all the Mozilla developers and cancelling any future development of the Netscape browser suite. The recently released Netscape 7.1 will be the last Netscape release. While AOL won’t be backing Mozilla development financially anymore, they did give the project a kind of severance package: the creation of the Mozilla Foundation, a not-for-profit organization to manage the continuing development of Mozilla technologies. AOL has given the Foundation a starting grant of $2 million and the permanent ownership of all Mozilla-relevant trademarks and images. (Other companies, including Red Hat and IBM, have pledged to also support the Foundation.) They’ve also managed to get Mitch Kapor to serve as the Foundation’s chairman.

So, what does this mean in practical terms?

It means a few things. First, it means that Netscape is well and truly dead. For those of us who have fond memories of early versions of Netscape Navigator, this is a sad thing, but for most people it will have no real impact, since uptake of the Netscape-branded versions of Mozilla has always been slow (since they were essentially just Mozilla with a bunch of useless AOL junk tacked on). Second, it means that Mozilla is not dead: the Foundation will continue to guide development, and many of the core Mozilla hackers will stay involved with the project, either through the auspices of the Foundation, with the blessing of their new employers, or just in their spare time.

So the news isn’t all bad. In some ways, in fact, being severed from AOL/Netscape may prove to be liberating for Mozilla. There’s always been a lot of tension around the relationship between Mozilla and Netscape — AOL wanted to be sure that people didn’t rush to Mozilla and forget about the Netscape brand they paid so much for, so they forced a number of decisions on the Mozilla Project that only made sense in that light. For example, the project has been insisting for years now that Mozilla is not an “end-user product”, suitable for average people to use — they argued that instead it was merely a code base for other companies to pick up and repackage as Mozilla “distributions”, in the same way that Red Hat, SuSE, et. al. sell Linux distributions. The only problem is, only one company ever showed interest in a Mozilla distribution, and that company was Netscape! Moreover, since Netscape’s distribution was so overloaded with AOL garbage, most people just went and grabbed raw, unadorned Mozilla instead, which led to the awkward spectacle of Mozilla essentially competing against itself. This led to lots of schizophrenic decisions, like burying the download links on the main Mozilla site so that casual users couldn’t easily grab the software.

So, has this changed? Take a look at the redesigned Mozilla site and see for yourself — it’s now very attractive and end-user-focused. The Foundation has made it clear that they intend for Mozilla (and its associated standalone projects, like Firebird and Thunderbird) to be aimed squarely at end users from here on out; the “distribution” idea, which was nice but never quite worked out, will be dropped (to nobody’s regret).

So, if you use Mozilla, Firebird, Thunderbird, or another Moz-based project, the takeaway here is that you don’t need to worry about your browser. Mozilla is not going away, not as long as enough organizations and people care about it — and for now, at least, it looks like plenty do.

You should, however, consider making a (tax-deductible) donation to support the Mozilla Foundation — $2 million may sound like a lot, but Mozilla’s an ambitious project, and the more cash they have on hand the more they can improve your favorite browser software. They’ve got a PayPal account set up for people to donate to; just go to the home page and click the “Make A Donation” button.

Think about it: what software do you use the most on your computer? Your Web browser and e-mail client, probably. If you use Mozilla technologies for either of those tools, think about how much value you’ve gotten from Mozilla: it’s been more than a year now since Mozilla 1.0 shipped, and Moz has been usable since long before that, so that’s years of great browsing that you’ve gotten for free. Surely you can spare $5 or $10 to say “thank you” to the people who worked so hard to bring that to you, and to ensure that you have new innovations to enjoy from Mozilla for years to come. It’s a small price to pay for that, and to ensure that Microsoft doesn’t do to the Web what they did to the operating system. So reach into your pockets and give a little, already! Don’t be a cheapskate 🙂