Web browser project makes one last stab at challenging Microsoft Corp.

By Anick Jesdanun, The Associated PRess
Friday June 14, 2002

NEW YORK — A Web browser project run primarily by volunteers and backed by America Online is making one last stab at challenging the dominance of Microsoft Corp. 

The group released its Mozilla 1.0 package this month — some four years after AOL’s Netscape unit launched the project. 

And while analysts aren’t sanguine about the browser’s prospects, there is excitement among those who believe Mozilla’s real strength lies in its versatility and potential for gadgets such as wireless devices where Microsoft is not yet dominant. 

“Internet technology is (being) transformed into a privatized world, developed and run for the benefit of a small number of vendors,” said Mitchell Baker, the project’s general manager. “Mozilla is a critical component of keeping the Web open and allowing innovation.” 

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer now has a global usage share among browsers of 93 percent, up from 87 percent last year and 67 percent in 1999, according to WebSideStory’s StatMarket. 

Netscape’s current share is less than 6 percent, with the remainder using Opera and other browsers. 

Mozilla may thrill some tech-savvy users, “but it’s not going to make a dent with the mainstream,” said WebSideStory’s Geoff Johnston, unless, that is, AOL Time Warner puts major marketing muscle behind it. 

AOL is using Mozilla in newer Netscape browsers, including the 7.0 version now available as a preview release. The company is also testing Gecko, the Mozilla component that displays content on a screen, for its flagship AOL service, which now runs on Internet Explorer. 

Microsoft declined comment on how much of a threat it considers Mozilla, saying it cannot speak on rival products. 

The Mozilla project began in 1998 when then-independent Netscape shifted its browser strategy to better compete with Microsoft. Netscape released its source code, or software blueprint, to the public and encouraged developers to offer improvements. 

Several months into the project, the Mozilla team decided to scrap the Netscape code and start from scratch to create a modern software platform on which to build many applications — not just browsers. 

In early 1999, AOL acquired Netscape. 

Now that Mozilla 1.0 is finally done, it’s available for download at www.mozilla.org. But there’s no Mozilla help desk for users. 

The focus instead will be on assisting developers, such as Netscape and Red Hat Inc., who can package and ship products and offer support to users. 

The power of Mozilla, which got its name from Netscape’s dinosaur-like mascot, is its open-source nature. Users who can’t get satisfaction from existing browsers can adapt Mozilla themselves. Versions are being developed for Internet kiosks, game consoles and cable television set-top boxes. 

Because of its modular build, Mozilla can be the ground floor for myriad unbrowserlike applications: games, desktop calculators, music-video players, word processors. 

“We really are building an Internet operating system at this point,” said Tim O’Reilly, a technical publisher and leading advocate of open-source software. “Components of Mozilla are useful parts of that framework.” 

Andrew Mutch helps develop and uses a version called K-Meleon in the Waterford Township, Mich., public library, where he is systems technician. 

He says other browsers don’t let him turn off features the way K-Meleon does, making them difficult to manage in multiple-user settings. 

WorldGate Communications Inc., which makes systems for interactive television, is customizing Mozilla for set-top devices, preferring it to proprietary software from potential competitors. 

“We need to be independent enough that we can set our own course and not be beholden to someone else’s priorities and schedules,” said Gerard Kunkel, WorldGate’s president. 

The Mozilla team officially makes versions for Macintosh and the open-source Linux, and volunteers translate it to several other systems. Versions are planned in at least 38 languages. 

In some respects, Mozilla will compete head-to-head with Opera, another popular browser within a niche, tech-savvy community. Both browsers, for example, share such features as a pop-up ad blocker. 

Opera chief executive Jon S. von Tetzchner isn’t worried about the competition. With 1 million new installations of Opera each month, both have room to grow, he says. 

Mozilla’s Baker insists the project’s success is critical to the Web’s future.