Betting on Darwin

Doc Searls interviews Marc Andreessen and Tom Paquin on Netscape's Open Source Strategy.
From Authors to Stewards

Doc: What's your role in the browser conversation now, with Mozilla.org?

Tom: We're hoping to steward that conversation, but there's no compulsion here. They have the source and can choose to go their merry way. We're all better off if there's a lot of coordination and cooperation, and the community recognizes that. So it's not that they're going to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. We don't have to offer free donuts to get them to come to the party. On the other hand, if they don't like our stewardship, they don't have to cooperate. So we have to act in the traditional open source responsible manner—in a way that will make them want to play. Somebody will steward this, whether it's us or not. If they don't like us, they'll find someone else to do it.

Marc: Again, we can't de-commit.

Doc: I've always thought the best kind of marketing amounts to arson. You set fires and stand back and watch what happens.

Marc: (Laughing) Right. I'll enjoy watching this one.

Doc: The open source world, it seems to me, is already a very active conversation. Great kindling, as it were. Already the browser conversation has changed: Whoosh, it's different.

Marc: Right.

Doc: Yet the press will still play this as a war over a battlefield, no matter how much it looks like the Big Bang, and no matter how non-territorial it is.

Marc: Exactly. What's really happening is new vendors constantly opening up new spaces where new things happen. Everybody gains. That's the real story.

Doc: And, once you have a firestorm of interest going on around Mozilla, it will do what LDAP did two years ago.

Marc: Sure. Same pattern.

No Surprises

Doc: What has surprised you, in just the week since the source went out?

Marc: A lot of our programmers have been surprised by the level of interest and activity. We've cured a lot of skepticism in the last week.

Tom: You're going to dislike the things that surprised me, because in truth we expected this to take off in exactly the way it has. We got a bunch of memory bug fixes that I thought were great. I was a little surprised at how strong the Macintosh community jumped on. They were really in there. We got a localized version that happened fast: a crypto plug-in from the crypto-weenies in Australia who hacked it together in seven hours hacking time, fifteen hours real time. Speed was impressive too. I expected people to spend more time digesting, but they piled right in.

The skeptics are surprised, of course. “Well, gee, we see some evidence here that Netscape is serious about this and not abandoning the browser business.” That kind of stuff is what's truly surprising.

Marc: There was skepticism in engineering as to whether people would be able to understand it enough to make changes. And they've absolutely been able to do so. It hasn't been an issue.

Tom: Yeah, the difficulties haven't been difficult.

Hand in Claw

Doc: Marc, you said at the SVLUG meeting that you could see Mozilla becoming the GUI for Linux. What are you talking about there?

Marc: I don't want to overreach and say Mozilla has to be the GUI for Linux. It makes perfect sense for Mozilla to be in a window running on an X desktop or anywhere else. But the thing we think is happening—and has been steadily happening over the last five years—is that we are all spending more and more of our time doing things on the Net as opposed to doing things on the local system. That should lead to a major interface change we're only beginning to see, equivalent to the shift from text to GUI.

The next shift should be from a GUI-centric or desktop-centered interface to a net-centered interface, one that takes into account the virtues of the network. Because the fundamental difference is that there's a million or a billion times as much stuff out there that we have access to and therefore may have to deal with at some level, than was ever on an individual desktop system. And so, the interface has to change radically to whatever the Net opens up. The scope of that means Mozilla is positioned to become that GUI, that breakthrough, through community effort.

Doc: The network interface?

Marc: Exactly, the network interface. If you think of Mozilla as a full-screen environment that is inherently a network interface, it is heavily oriented to filtering and managing the huge amount of information out there, and being extraordinarily personalized for the individual user. There are all these resources to draw out of the Net, which increasingly represent the needs of the user to the Net; thus, resources become smarter in a sense, doing more useful stuff for the user, and finally will, no doubt, include the contents of the user's own machine.

Doc: So your local machine becomes a subset of what's in the networked universe, but your view is through a Net-oriented interface.

Marc: Exactly. The local box is a very, very small subset, but the Net is the context.

Doc: We already see people adapting the way they work to the Net context.

Marc: Now, we see lots of documents, reports and messages are being typed in e-mail that previously would have been typed in a word processor or on a typewriter. You see the emergence of the navigation center in the code that's up there now, providing a view of the Net. Maps of web sites, plus bookmarks, plus directories, plus e-mail messages—basically everything you have access to, in a single place.

I can easily imagine Mozilla, within a year or two or even sooner, will have an interface mode that gives you sort of a full-screen experience that happens to provide everything you need to manage your local desktop but is specifically focused on being a very effective interface for the Net. This is going to be a very fertile breeding ground for a lot of innovation in user interfaces. There has been a huge amount of work in computer science labs and in the larger community on next generation user interfaces. Historically, it has taken decades for any of those innovations to make it out. Windows and the Macintosh are known for technologies invented 25 years ago. But while it takes a long time for this to happen in the commercial marketplace, it can happen much faster in the grass roots world that will grow around Mozilla. You will see grad students doing radically advanced user interfaces as their Ph.D. theses, implemented in Mozilla. One of those will be the interface we'll all be using a few years from now.

Doc: I have this notion that who you are is more a matter of where you come from than any other factor. It's the anchor point for the vector of your life. You can change your name, your job, your whole résumé, but you still come from the same place. And this is true of companies as well as people. It's the source of character. Apple will always come from Steve Jobs' aesthetic. Sun will always come from The Network. Netscape will always come from wherever you, Marc, were at when your team created Mosaic. Was that UNIX?

Marc: There were UNIX guys, but a lot of PC and Macintosh guys as well. Essentially, where we came from was a commitment to a heterogeneous universe. We also go back a long way with this. We had connections in the open source community before Linux really existed. Back then, the open source community was a lot smaller. The projects they were focused on were things like Emacs, FreeBSD, C compilers and so on. Now that community is larger, more involved with the Web and growing very fast. That's why the timing is so right for this move. It wouldn't have been a few years ago.

Social Computing

Doc: A while back it seemed to me that the next stage beyond personal computing would be social computing. It seemed a natural progression, from the one to the many. But there is a difference in kind between the personal and the social, between the user interface to a personal computer and the user interface to the Net, which is where we find computing's society. What you're talking about is making Mozilla a social interface.

Marc: Right.

Doc: Maybe it's a stretch, but the Open Source society is very different than the company that's trying to build the ultimate personal computer.

Marc: Right. Microsoft is trying to put all this stuff back in the box, right? They're trying to take this whole world and squeeze it down.

Doc: If I look for analogous concerns in the real world, my most personal space is maybe my closet, because I know where my shoes are, and my shirts and belts and so forth.

Marc: Same for your bookshelf.

Doc: Yet, society is nothing like my closet or my bookshelf. But the presence of a computing society in my life means I don't write in a word processor anymore. I write in e-mail and a text editor. I wrote my questions today in BBEdit, saved it to the a42 server at Linux Journal in Seattle, reviewed them with Phil Hughes, wherever he was, and printed it out in my office. The browser was there for all of it, of course. And the interesting thing is that all this is far less feature-rich than what I used to do on a word processor and print out at home. But it's far more social, and far more useful.

Marc: It's social publishing.

Doc: Right. Now, here's where I'm going with this: we are each willing to yield a lot of personal choice to get along with society. Hey, maybe I like to race cars, but I won't do that on a highway. But I behave the way I do on a highway because that's a social place.

Tom: That's incredibly true of your social life. All of your manners are necessary to get along in society.

Doc: The irony of personal computing is that you can't see the social from the personal. I can't abstract the organization of the world from the contents of my closet. I can't understand traffic from the perspective of racing a car. I can't see more in terms of less. Yet there are concerns and functions inherent in social computing that don't show up in personal computing. What I'm suggesting is that you guys live at the social level and have lived there all along.

Marc: That's right.

Doc: So you're coming from the social, and Microsoft is coming from the personal. Which is why I think you're not surprised, Tom, when the society you know best acts just as you expected when you released the source code.

Tom: Right. And somebody who lived in the other world might be asking all these questions about, “Why would these people want to help you?”

Marc: Or “Why isn't this just going to fragment?” That was the big question we got from the press, and we had to carefully explain why there are tons of reasons it won't fragment, not the least of which is the centrifugal force where, if you want to fragment, you take upon yourself the burden of pulling in all the changes everyone else is making into your own version. There are always issues like this that actually make things work. That's why Linux works.

Tom: Who wants incompatibility? The problem is, I could say this to a room full of people and they'd all have the same answer. The guys up north want to sell tools that are the only tools in the business that can operate on the data... Then I say “Ah, okay, sorry, I wasn't thinking about that. I think compatibility and open interfaces are good things.” So we don't communicate because we're not operating at the same level.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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