Chronicle of a Death Foretold

The recent announcement of AOL putting a final nail in Netscape’s coffin comes as a no surprise. As I predicted earlier, AOL saw little value in supporting the open source project as much as it did. So Netscape, which once was recognized as the leading innovator in the browser space, is dead. In a way, this was a move that was very long in coming. With the introduction of Internet Explorer 4.0, Microsoft took a lead that started to erode Netscape’s dominance in the browser market. A few mistakes only worsened the situation and, for a while, it looked as if it was all over.

Fortunately, while Mozilla had a rough childhood, the project eventually paid off with a browser that offered true innovation. It may have been late to the party and, due to its Netscape background, the group was forced into creating an all-in-one Internet application that was running slowly on most computers. Through the efforts of a lot of volunteers, performance eventually improved, to the point where parity on features was reached. A recent realization that some people might just be interested in a browser led to changes in the roadmap, which allowed for increased support for Firebird, one of the fastest browsers currently on the market (it is now my default browser on non-mac machines).

Meanwhile, Netscape kept using that good code, getting rid of a few user-centric features (like pop-up removal), and bloating it with more marketing content. In a way, this contributed to people writing off Netscape as an also-ran. But in the geek world, Mozilla has been gaining ground, offering a powerful alternative to IE. A recent shakeout, due to Apple’s decision to use a non-Mozilla code base, was a good thing that refocused Mozilla on the user community.

With the announcement of the creation of the Mozilla foundation, the Mozilla project can now come unto its own, not having to worry about the legacy of Netscape. While the decrease in financial support offered by AOL/Time-Warner will initially be difficult, I suspect that other corporations will eventually step in to help increase the visibility of the project. Furthermore, with Netscape no longer associated with Mozilla, there is hope that AOL’s mistakes will no longer reflect badly on Mozilla.

A window of opportunity is now open for the Mozilla project, as Microsoft has announced that it will no longer support standalone browsers and as Longhorn, the next version of the Microsoft operating system is not expected for a while. If the Mozilla Foundation moves quickly enough, we could actually see an increase in overall market shares for the browser.

There are, however, many tasks ahead for the foundation. First of all, it needs to figure out how to get people to switch from Netscape to Mozilla Firebird. The reason for doing this is to allow for increased concentration on a single browser platform with the Gecko rendering engine. There is currently no point in trying to get IE users to switch, until the Mozilla Firebird browser reaches 1.0 status. Once that is done, the challenge will be in getting a portion of the other 90+% of the public to try it out. I believe that once they do, they will find it easier to use than the old Redmond browser (which was released almost 2 years ago, a lifetime in browserland).

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