The Lizard in Winter

October 15th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

Mozilla 1.5 and Firebird 0.7 came out today.

Three years ago, I wrote an editorial about Mozilla. The project was still about 18 months away from releasing a “final” version, and it was under constant criticism. Detractors said the project lacked clear direction, that it was forsaking the clear need for a browser that wasn’t Internet Explorer, that it was over-featured, that the developers were pursuing an egg-headed goal while ignoring a clear and pressing need among end users, that Konqueror was kicking its ass anyhow, and that, worst of all, it was a barfy mess to use. My own qualified support of the Mozilla project was built on a pair of beliefs:

  1. Mozilla was cross-platform, making it more viable across more computers than Konqueror.
  2. Mozilla had mindshare, resources from Netscape, and developer momentum other projects did not.

Since then, both my points remain valid, though there are some qualifications. The guts of Konqueror have gone on to drive Apple’s Safari, Mozilla is still “supported” by Netscape in the form of money and server space, and developer momentum still exists. The core of Mozilla is in use in several browser projects, proving that it’s a usable engine for other browsers.

It’s probably hard for people who’ve not strayed from Windows very far to appreciate the hysteria that surrounded the Mozilla project.

A year before I wrote my column, one of my predecessors at Linux Today wrote his own panicked call to arms in support of a decent browser for Linux, arguing that if Mozilla didn’t succeed, Linux was doomed.

“This is the battle that could cost us the war,” he wrote. “If we come together and push all of our might toward a Free Web Browser for Linux, we have a good chance of winning this battle. If we fail, we will lose the war.”

For those not versed in Linux codetalk, “the war” is with Microsoft, and as far as the browser front goes, it’s now 2003 and there’s little indication that either Microsoft lost (it did not) or Linux collapsed on the desktop (it’s no less popular than Macintosh, regardless of the stammering qualifications Mac-heads will throw at anyone who brings that up). Mozilla continues to move along, but it didn’t crush anything except a few minor browser projects, and it’s taken its share of dings, too. The Macintosh-only version of the project, for instance, was clearly derailed when Apple released Safari and sucked all the oxygen out of the “Anything But Microsoft” space Mozilla had dominated.

Mozilla has also undergone a change in course (which its fans will tell you isn’t really a change at all), moving to “end-user-friendly” versions of the project called “Firebird” (the browser) and “Thunderbird” (the e-mail component). At the same time, the project has been promising an end to development of the Mozilla browser suite proper, and a focus on what end users need.

I reserve judgement on Mozilla’s hopes at this point. I’ve been a cheerleader for the project more than a few times, but it’s a hard sell to make in a Windows/Internet Explorer dominated world. Mozilla has some nice features, sure, but people have been making do with Explorer for so long that there are questions of inertia. There’s also a question of whether the people running the show at the Mozilla Project really know how to proceed from here. It can’t be coincidental that as Mozilla matured, they began casting about for a new direction. With a solid, reliable browser on their hands, they decided it was time to pour their efforts into something new, reintroducing bugs and problems their long-time userbase had endured and patiently filed bug reports on for years.

Perhaps even more meaningful than my own luke-warm reception of the project’s latest effort, though, is Sam’s list of his Top Eleven Firebird Annoyances. Sam’s more of a Mozilla partisan than I ever managed, even at my most vocal and public, and it’s hard to miss the note of fatigue in his comments.

One of the great themes of open source software development is that its projects are often started to scratch an itch, and remain viable to the extent they become useful to others who want to help make them better. I wonder if Mozilla hasn’t moved into a stage where the itch being scratched is less “build a solid browser with optional messaging components” and more “continue to experiment with developing a browser.” It’s ironic that the latter is being equated with taking better care of end users, who were probably hoping they could forget about chasing Mozilla downloads for a while once the project grew up, something the former was finally set to allow.

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© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.