Mozilla’s radical open-source move helped rewrite rules of tech

A gamble 20 years ago unleashed the source code for the browser that became Firefox. The approach is now core to Facebook, Google and everyone else.

Twenty years ago, Netscape Communications was desperate. It was the darling of the first wave of internet companies for its ability to let you surf the web, but Microsoft had crushed its business prospects by giving away a web browser for free.

So Netscape did something that was radical for the time: On March 31, 1998, it gave away the source code behind its Netscape Communicator browser, the once-secret programming instructions that developers used to build the software. The project, called Mozilla, amounted to surrendering the crown jewels.

By the time the gamble paid off years later with the success of Mozilla’s Firefox browser, Netscape was extinct. But even though the Mozilla project didn’t rescue the internet pioneer, it did help profoundly reshape the technology industry.

When Mozilla was born, open-source software was a counterculture oddity that flew in the face of a software industry used to selling proprietary products. But today, it powers just about every tech company out there — GoogleFacebook and yes, even that old open-source nemesis, Microsoft. Mozilla wasn’t the first open-source project, but it fanned the flames of a way of thinking that brought us ubiquitous social networks, mobile operating systems and thousands of apps.

“It was a Hail Mary pass,” said Chris DiBona, director of open source at Google. “But somebody caught the ball and ran with it.”

Now it’s the norm. Google releases five or six open-source projects every single day — more than 12,000 in total so far. It’s common enough that Google automated the process so no humans are needed to review the decision. It’s hard to overstate how profound a change that is for people who program for a living.

“For so long the mindset was ‘protect the code, protect the code, protect the code,'” said Chris Tino, director of engineering at Ghostery, a privacy-focused browser extension maker that just released its software as open source. “Now it’s almost to the point where if you’re not open source, there’s a little bit of a shadow cast over you.”

Mozilla’s sharp turn toward open source

In 1998, things were looking bad for Netscape. Its Communicator software, based on a web browser but also handling email and other online activities, was losing the first browser war. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was good and shipped free with Windows, the dominant operating system.

Mozilla chairwoman and co-founder Mitchell Baker
Mozilla chairwoman and co-founder Mitchell Baker

James Martin/CNET

“It was clear continuing to play on that field was lost,” said Mitchell Baker, Mozilla chairwoman and early leader. The internal debate began: “How could we change the rules?” Open-source software was a commercial rarity at the time, but Netscape was a hot company whose developers were tapped into the new coding trends, and opening Netscape’s source code turned out to be the answer to Microsoft’s challenge.

Brendan Eich, another Mozilla co-founder and now chief executive of competitor Brave Software, saw the move as equally dramatic. “What do you do when you’re being run into the wall by a monster truck? You make a hard left,” he recounted.

Netscape’s open-source move made headlines. But anyone expecting quick success was quickly disappointed. Many open-source projects begin their life in the open, but Mozilla began as an unwieldy mess no outsider could do much with.

“In the first six months, nothing was done with the browser code. It was a hairball,” Eich said. “Besides expurgating … curse words, we had to expurgate all the crypto code.”

Raising Firefox from Netscape’s ashes

It was a long slog. The original browser project, called Mozilla, faltered and only recovered when stripped back to its essentials. The result, Firefox 1.0, arrived in 2004, when the Mozilla organization was down to just 14 employees, Baker said.

But what a difference it made. Microsoft, complacent with IE’s victory over Netscape, had let its browser languish, and Firefox exploded in popularity with better performance, a better interface and viral word-of-mouth marketing.

Mozilla's old mascot -- no longer part of the nonprofit's branding -- adorns the walls of its Mountain View, California, headquarters.
Mozilla’s old mascot — no longer part of the nonprofit’s branding — adorns the walls of its Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

“Today it’s probably hard to imagine how different that open-source community was,” Baker said. “Open source was weird and crazy.”

But it got the job done for Mozilla. Volunteers translated Firefox’s interface into several languages. One added a key Firefox feature: tabs to easily let you handle many websites at once. Outsiders tested the software and provided crucial support to newcomers with questions, Baker said. They multiplied the strength of those 14 Mozilla employees immeasurably.

“Firefox could not have succeeded without open source,” Baker said.

And now, largely as a result, we have a fiercely competitive browser market. Mozilla has struggled to maintain its influence, but the web itself remains a vital force, and that’s one of Mozilla’s key priorities. The organization’s quest for a better internet, meanwhile, ranges from its stance on net neutrality to its responses to Facebook’s data privacy scandal, including the release of an add-on to keep Facebook from tracking users and its decision to stop advertising on the social network. (Firefox add-ons include extensions, such as tools or features, and themes, which change the web browser’s appearance.)

What exactly is open-source software?

Source code is software written in high-level programming languages that humans can understand. It’s often a closely guarded secret.

The open-source software movement embraced the idea that a project could progress faster with source code that anyone could see, change and distribute on their own. Interested people or companies could modify it for their own needs — “scratch your own itch” — and the openness means there’s more opportunity for people to spot bugs and offer solutions.

Early examples of open-source software — and its philosophical progenitor, the free-software movement — often began with no commercial ambitions at all. One of the most notable, the Linux core to a Unix-like operating system, began as a project by then-student Linus Torvalds.

But code shared freely on the internet flew in the face of tech titans, most notably Microsoft, which had risen to commercial success by selling licenses that granted customers the right to use software. Microsoft Windows and Office came on a shiny, silver CD sealed behind a legal agreement that forbade anyone from trying to figure out exactly how it worked.

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