Next generation browser: Pure open source software development comes of age

A conversation with Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation.

Most of us used the Netscape browser during the early days of the Net. Netscape is still around, but it did birth an open source sibling browser named Mozilla. The original development project of the Netscape browser was created by Mark Andreessen in 1993. Mozilla, the dragon that was Netscape’s mascot, could be seen everywhere on Netscape’s site in those days. It’s Netscape’s main logo before 1995, when Mozilla was replaced by the familiar Netscape stars. Mozilla is also the internal name of any Netscape browser to date.

Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation, took a few minutes to tell me about Mozilla and the new browser, FireFox, and its Thunderbird e-mail program, how it’s built in a true Open Source development process and why the development process for it’s non-profit foundation may be a significant and industry-changing way software gets written in the future.

Q: Tell us about the Mozilla Foundation.

Baker: The Mozilla Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization. We’re just over a year old but the Mozilla project has been around for a long time.

Q: What were the reasons to form the foundation?

Baker: There were several. The Mozilla project has always been a project trying to bring together open source developers with commercial software developers and distributors. Many of these commercial entities didn’t know how to approach Mozilla.org staff since they were a virtual organization. The organization is a way for people to find us and deal with us and know how we operate.

Q: With the open source development process, are you finding the development process a lot faster being open to a large group of developers? What kind of checks and balances you have a code quality?

Baker: The way our project works is pretty structured. The Mozilla project is big in terms of lines of code and complexity. We’ve broken the code base into logical chunks, called modules, and the foundation staff delegate authority for the modules to people with the most expertise. If you are the module owner for a piece of code, you have two responsibilities. You’re responsible for the day-to-day operation and improvement and development of that code, and representing whatever code goes into your module. You are also responsible for some long-term planning; what you want to happened with that module.

Beyond that, we have a highly structured review process for that code. Many people think that open source projects are sort of chaotic and and anarchistic. They think that developers randomly throw code at the code base and see what sticks. Everything is tracked through our bug tracking system called Bugzilla.

Q: Are your code developers working as volunteers?

Baker: People participate in the project for whole range of reasons. There has always been a course of developers that were paid to work full-time on the project. That came out of the Netscape heritage and it is true today. In addition to that, there has always been a very active volunteer community and an active set of people employed by other companies.

Q: Why would someone volunteer?

Baker: Some people are really drawn to technology and I liken them to artists. There are dancers and painters and writers who pursued that whether or not they are paid for it. There are a lot of technologists who are the same. There is another set of people who are honing their technical skills – either they are students or they want to retrain themselves. There’s a third set of people who are not fulfilled in their work life but they may be technologists or working in some other field that requires good technical skills and they participate because they do get a sense of fulfillment. We actually have a real community of people doing useful things. People notice it and they help you participate and see your work included in this project and when we ship our browser, you and millions of other people get to see the fruits of your efforts.

Q: Do you think this is the model for software development in the future?

Baker: It is an effective model – more effective and certainly more disciplined and structured than many people realize. We’ve always been the development project that lived in a time pressured setting and always where commercial entities were relying heavily on releases in a certain time frame. It’s a model for the future but not the only or best model.

Q: And Mozilla is particularly careful to test the code.

Baker: We have a very active testing community which people don’t often think about when you have open source. Over the history of the Mozilla project, it turns out that the product browsers exists on many different kinds of machines. We get hundreds of thousands of downloads off of any milestone and our last FireFox download was in the millions. Those allow a set of testing and responses that would be hard to get any other way. Our quality, when we do label something a 1.0 quality, is more than you could expect. And certainly if one tried to do that kind of testing, it would be phenomenally expensive. That’s an element that the Mozilla project pioneered that doesn’t get discussed as much as its value would suggest.

Q: Run down the list of products you have people aren’t aware of.

Baker: What we have the longest is the Mozilla suite. We’re up to the 1.7 release now. That is the combined browser, e-mail, newsreader, chat. It’s a big application, does a lot of things, has a lot of functionality.
What we have done in the last 12 – 18 months is rewrite the application layer. We have a new browser known as Mozilla FireFox and a new e-mail client called Mozilla Thunderbird. The application layer itself is totally new and great. The underlying layer, the infrastructure, is the same surge of the benefit of all the stability and maturity and performance that we spent years developing an infrastructure, plus the benefits of lightweight, next generation that new browsing male applications on top. Those are the really killer products.

Q: How can people interested in helping the project do so?

Baker: Go to Missoula.org and click on an area for developers. You can look at the tools. A lot of people start in the testing and quality assurance area because it’s an easier way to get familiar with the project. There is an independent fanzine online at www.mozillazine.org and that has a lot of information about the new products and forums for helping and how to get involved.

For more conversation with Mitchell Baker, her full interview is online at WebTalkRadio.com.

Dana Greenlee is co-host/producer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based nationally syndicated radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.

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