Tangled Webs

   If You Love Something, Set it Free
Issue 3.02
Feb 04, 1998

Yes, We Mean FREE!

Most knew that faced with shrinking browser market share and browser sales accounting for only 13% of revenue, Netscape would soon start giving away Navigator for free. What took everybody by surprise, however, was how sweeping Netscape's concept of "free" turned out to be. On January 22nd, Netscape announced that not only would future versions of Navigator and Communicator be free, but that their source code would be made publicly available.

Netscape's licensing model will be based on the recursively named GNU (GNU's Not UNIX) public license. Developers will be able to modify and even sell programs derived from the source code provided their modifications are also publicly available. Traditionally, source code (the human-readable list of instructions used to create the machine-readable program) has been software companies' most valuable and closely guarded intellectual property. The Internet, however, continues to turn the software industry on its head.

A year ago I lamented the fact that software companies had abandoned proper beta testing and were relying on Internet users to debug their software for free. Now Netscape has taken the concept on step further and is relying on Internet users to actually develop their software for free. Oddly, this will almost certainly result in better, more bug-free software for Netscape.

Can This Really Work?

A few years ago, developing commercial software in this way would have been unthinkable. It breaks every rule of quality assurance and defies common sense. It also produces some fantastic software. In fact, most of the software that keeps the Internet running was developed in this way.

Apache, for example, is by far the most popular and flexible web server available. It's free and has been developed by hundreds of individual programmers all over the world adding features and fixing bugs whenever they feel such changes are needed. A small core group then decides which changes are put into the official version, of which there may be several. Linux, the most popular flavor of UNIX, is a powerful OS (it compares favorably with Windows NT) developed and supported in exactly this manner.

Netscape will be able to pick and choose which innovations they wish to include in their official version of Navigator and have their own programmers fill in any holes they see. Other companies will be able to do exactly the same thing and release their own versions of Navigator.

The fact that so many talented programmers will work so many hours without pay is often inexplicable to those who are not part of the culture. The only real yardstick of success as an engineer is credibility, and that comes only from peer-recognition. By tracking down and fixing a particularly difficult bug, one becomes known world-wide (among those who matter) as the one who was able to do it. There is no surer way to solve a problem than to tell a group of talented programmers that the engineers at a respected computer company have declared it impossible.

The Game Plan

The only way Netscape looses in all this is that they are giving up control of their browser. In the future, consumer demands rather than marketing strategy will determine which features get added and which standards are adopted. This reverses the current situation where features are added for strategic reasons and then marketing creates a demand for them. Netscape will no longer be able to play the incompatible standards game with Microsoft, and shortly we will be seeing a version of Netscape with full support for Active-X and other Microsoft technologies.

Microsoft spokesmen made it clear, however, that Microsoft will not be following suit. IE product manager David Fester stated "The customers have spoken. Giving away the source code is not something our customers have asked for. They don't want to plow through it."

That's an outright lie, of course. Many developers would give a lung for a look at Explorer's source code, and an hour spent "plowing through" source code can save days or even months of debugging. Microsoft will not be giving away IE in this form because doing so would hamper their ability to dictate standards, and that would reduce their leverage.

Don't get me wrong. Microsoft is making the right strategic move here, and they are under no obligation to share their source code with anyone. I simply wish computer companies would drop the incredibly insulting pretense that marketing decisions are based on consumer needs. When a company wants to shaft the consumer, I wish they would just do it rather than trying to convince us that their customers have been demanding a good shafting for months.

Market Share

The quality of Navigator is about to improve, but what about its market share? A year ago, Netscape controlled about 70 percent of the browser market. It's now down to 57 percent. This erosion is not due to quality problems or lack of features, but to the fact that Mircosoft's Internet Explorer is bundled with every new PC sold. If Netscape wants to regain its lost market share, it had better change this situation very soon.

In theory, making Navigator free gives PC vendors a wonderful way to create custom browsers for their customers, and due to the recent court hearings, Microsoft can no longer force vendors to include Internet Explorer on all their PCs. That's the theory. In reality, breaking ranks with Microsoft has never been a safe course of action, and so far, PC manufacturers are making it clear that they have no intention of doing do.

Of course, the vendors are quick to explain that they are acting with only the best interests of the consumer at heart. As Compaq spokesperson Angela Goodwin stated "We know what our customers want, and what they want is IE." When pressed as to how Compaq arrived at this conclusion, however, she replied "I can't tell you the exact method we used to determine that."

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© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
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