Betting on Darwin

Doc Searls interviews Marc Andreessen and Tom Paquin on Netscape's Open Source Strategy.
Dealing with Java

Doc: Is Sun going to open Java?

Marc: There are eerie parallels here between what Sun did in 1982 and what Linux is doing in 1998. In many ways it's the same technical community. It's a community that's very focused on free versions of UNIX, running on commodity hardware, appealing initially to a very technical audience and eventually with a much broader relevance. Sun, in 1983 and 1984, totally and uniquely had an understanding that you could harness all this energy around BSD and commodity hardware and just get it out the door to this technical community. SGI and many other companies didn't get it back then, but Sun did.

Now they've done a complete 180. If you think about it, they are now a proprietary verticalized systems vendor: doing their own chip, their own complete systems architecture, their own software, their own operating system, their own applications in many cases, their own storage devices and so on. When they think of Java, they think, “we really need to control this.” Wrong answer. Because the alternative is that there will absolutely be multiple implementations. There need to be Javas defined to lead naturally in the open direction. Sun is going to force them to emerge and to flourish by not opening Java up.

Tom: It's like what AT&T did in the UNIX market.

Marc: Right. If you think about it, what's so 180 is—well, look—I like Alan Baritz a lot. But Alan's from IBM. In 1982, Sun would not have put someone from IBM in charge of something like this. Now they would, and that's a mind-set change. And so that's one reason this is so fascinating. They play a very strong marketing battle on the one hand about why Java is open, and on the other hand, they're not open at all.

For our part, we can make a practical observation that if we can't build Java source code into Mozilla, there will be a Java implementation that will end up in Mozilla. It'll be Sun's or someone else's.

Tom, should I pre-announce something here?

Tom: Go ahead.

Marc: We are at work on a next-generation Java runtime, internally code-named Electrical Fire. It should be on the Net shortly. There are multiple efforts already launched here. This is not a complete Java runtime in and of itself, but it's technology around which to build a very high-performance Java runtime. And we're going to put it on under MPL (the Mozilla license).

Natural Selection

Doc: Are engineers starting to beat your door down to work here? One of my hacker friends wants to know that.

Tom: We're seeing fewer people saying “Hire me, hire me” than those who are saying, “I want to play.”

Marc: We're hearing from people who want to do some particular project and ask if Netscape would be willing to subsidize it. And we could potentially use some number of those things, but I'm not sure it would be that good for Netscape to try to fund some of this stuff because it gives the wrong impression and offers the wrong incentives at that point. But I don't know. It's complicated. Also, from a practical standpoint, there's a limit to how much we can fund.

Tom: I like the Darwinian approach. Let natural selection occur.

Doc: Say, “If you've got such a good idea, go get your own funding. Start a business.”

What is this going to do to the server side of your business?

Marc: Indirectly, it benefits. Let me explain why. The server side of the business is strong and healthy to the extent that there is a competitive client marketplace. If there were a noncompetitive client marketplace and Microsoft had 100% client penetration, we would have a difficult time in the server market for obvious reasons: Microsoft would use its advantages. But now, because there is a competitive client marketplace, not only does Microsoft lack a dominant share, or even a majority share, they are forced to implement open interfaces and open ABIs, such that our servers actually interoperate with their clients. They are forced to do that by the market. As long as there is a competitive client market, their customers will demand it or they won't stay customers. If that market persists, our server business does great. If that market collapsed down to where Microsoft is the only competitor, our server business—and everyone's server business—is in a lot of trouble. That's why, for example, we're not going to try to get features built into Mozilla that only work on our servers. Open browsers guarantee an open server market.

Doc: Do you have any concern that this Open Source community will go create free server software that competes with your commercial server software? Apache equivalents for security, management and the rest of it?

Marc: Those exist now, in most cases. Freely available mail servers, security solutions, Kerberos, directory systems, University of Michigan LDAP. We're comfortable competing with all that. We sell $75 million worth of web servers every year, in a market where both Apache and IIS are free.

Doc: And you've got Caldera bundling your stuff with Linux, and there's a market for that.

Marc: Sure.

Doc: So you're saying that the world is exploding at a sufficiently rapid rate that it's going to suck your stuff into it at least as fast as anyone else's.

Marc: We'll sell more web servers this time next year in spite of the fact that more free ones will be out there. We sell software to businesses. Individuals are fundamentally looking for a different set of things.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal