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Freeing the Source

The Story of MozillaJim Hamerly and Tom Paquin with Susan Walton

On January 23, 1998, Netscape made two announcements. The first, as reported by C|Net: ``In an unprecedented move, Netscape Communications will give away its Navigator browser, confirming rumors over the last several weeks.''

The second: ``It also will give away the source code for the next generation of its Communicator suite.''

The decision to give away the browser came as no surprise, but the release of the source code stunned the industry. It hit the pages of newspapers around the world, and even the Open Source community was surprised at the move. Never before had a major software company opened up its proprietary code. What was Netscape up to now?

We had decided to change the playing field, and not for the first time. Always known for thinking outside the box, this time Netscape was taking the commitment to building a better Internet to a new level. When Netscape initiated unrestricted distribution of early versions of its browser over the Internet in 1994, people said ``That's crazy!'' When Netscape said ``Free Source Code'' they said the same thing.

The discussion period leading up to the Open Source announcement moved like a runaway train. After months of deliberation about whether or not to release the binary for free, critical mass was reached in the decision to free the source in an unbelievable twenty-four hours.

As fast and surprising as the announcement seemed to both insiders and outsiders, it reflected several converging tracks of thought. Netscape executives were discussing a whitepaper by Frank Hecker that expressed a view coming to the forefront. In it he advocated that Netscape free its source. Frank had done his homework, citing Eric Raymond's paper, ``The Cathedral and the Bazaar,'' and talking to people in departments throughout the organization -- from engineering to marketing to management. In a twenty-page opus that was widely circulated, he pled the case that was gaining momentum:

When Netscape first made Navigator available for unrestricted download over the Internet, many saw this as flying in the face of conventional wisdom for the commercial software business, and questioned how we could possibly make money ``giving our software away.'' Now of course this strategy is seen in retrospect as a successful innovation that was a key factor in Netscape's rapid growth, and rare is the software company today that does not emulate our strategy in one way or another. Among other things, this provokes the following question: What if we were to repeat this scenario, only this time with source code?
In the engineering pit there was a similar view. Many Netscape employees had experience working with Open Source. And since Communicator's code was so tightly integrated with Java and HTML, most recognized an emerging truth: It wasn't such a huge jump to make. The nature of Java invites a more open view of source distribution. Because it is cross-platform and can be compiled down to class files that are machine-independent executables, each binary is like a virtual machine. One effect of this is that programmers can decompile the executable and turn it back into source code. And the browser ``view source'' command made HTML a common vernacular. Rather than trying to block this, many believed Netscape should facilitate it, encourage it, and if possible, benefit from it.

The various grassroots schools of thoughts merged with unexpected suddenness. In meetings, reaction to the suggestion went from stunned shock to nods in minutes. Most of the discussions passed quickly from ``should we?'' to ``when?'' Most of the key people believed that we had to move fast, set a firm date, and make it happen. In January, Netscape made a promise to the Net: Communicator source will be released in the first calendar quarter of 1998. Netscape took this promise with deadly seriousness, and Project Source 331 came into being. This was the name for Netscape's all-out effort to have the source code out by March 31, 1998.

Then the reality set in.

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Next: Making It Happen Up: Open Sources Voices from Previous: Hardware, Software, and Infoware

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Last updated: 1999-08-06