The Software World—It's a-Changin'

By far the most interesting part of Netscape's announcement for the Linux community is the fact they will release the source code for Communicator starting with 5.0.

Welcome to my attempt to write a “Stop the Presses” with a subject that really asks to be editorialized on. First, let me set the scene: today is January 22. The important events of this day are:

  • Bill Clinton is once again accused of a sexual impropriety.

  • The Pope is in Cuba.

  • Netscape has announced that their browser is now free and that they will freely distribute the source code for it.

  • Microsoft has somewhat folded in its browser battle with the U.S. Justice Department.

The first two items are just for context—it has been an exciting day. I am really here to discuss the last two items.

Let's get the Microsoft information out of the way first. My understanding is that a compromise has been reached between Microsoft and the justice department—the Internet Explorer icon will not appear on the desktop, but the browser itself will still be included. As the easiest way to get a new browser is to download it off the Internet and 90% of all personal computers today come with Microsoft Windows, it seems that all we have done is made it a little harder for Internet Explorer to be on 90% of the desktops. Hopefully, there will be further developments in the Microsoft vs. the U.S. Justice Department game.

The Netscape item has two parts. The first, making the browser available for free really is a necessity; 90% of new personal computers come with Windows and, thus, Internet Explorer. Whether IE is better than anything Netscape offers or not isn't the issue if one comes with your computer and you have to go buy and install the other one. Numbers back up this statement. Netscape used to account for about 90% of the browser market while 60% is probably the case today.

The good news for Netscape is that they have managed to shift their revenue stream away from stand-alone client software. Their own numbers show that in the fourth quarter of 1997 these revenues were only 13% of the total, down from 45% a year earlier.

By far the most interesting part of Netscape's announcement for the Linux community is the fact they will release the source code for Communicator starting with 5.0. Sure, this will also make a change for them in the Windows arena and may force Microsoft to make some brave decision as well, but let's look at what this does for the Linux community.

The first thing I see is talk on the Gnome mailing list about a version of Navigator using Gnome. Call it Gnomescape, it is potentially a full-featured browser with a look and feel that is likely to become the Linux standard. [For more on Gnome see the “KDE and Gnome” article by Larry Ayers in issue 24 of Linux Gazette, January 1998.]

Netscape claims they are releasing the code to allow the Internet community to contribute to the development. (I expect Linux helped them realize that is possible.) For us, this can mean that instead of complaining about Netscape bugs, we can fix them. I expect, based on Linux history, the best, most bug-free version of Netscape will appear on Linux systems first.

Free Communicator and free source code mean that Linux systems become a much cheaper choice for “Web Appliances”. It also means inexpensive kiosks at shopping malls, car dealers, etc. While I am sure Netscape made this decision to help their competitive position with Microsoft, I think we will see a huge impact on the Linux scene. Of course, if Linux replaces Windows as the operating system installed on 90% of the PCs sold today, Netscape will be as happy as the Linux community.

What's still up in the air is what sort of license the source code will fall under. GPL is one choice; a license more like that of BSD is another. Check out “Linux News” and the discussion groups on our web site [http://www.linuxjournal.com/] to get up-to-the-minute information on what is happening.

______________________

Phil Hughes

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