What's the one thing almost everyone agrees is a necessity? A good Web browser. On July 15, America Online announced its pledge of $2 million to the Mozilla Foundation, a new, independent, nonprofit organization that will continue to promote the development of the Mozilla Web browser. This announcement created quite a stir within the Internet community and heralded a change in the browser landscape.
AOL owns Netscape, the long-established and once leading browser. About the same time it announced the contribution to Mozilla, AOL laid off 10 percent of the Netscape staff (approximately 50 people). In addition, AOL recently signed a 7-year agreement with Microsoft to exclusively offer Microsoft Internet Explorer as its browser.
The rumor mill started soon after. Was Netscape on its way out? Speculation abounded, with the final (unofficial) consensus tolling Netscape's death knell. Many were convinced that AOL would discontinue its support of Netscape and there would be no further releases or updates to the existing version.
AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein assured me that his company would continue to support Netscape. In spite of appearances, Netscape is part of AOL's multibrand strategy. Weinstein said that the layoffs were part of an "ongoing strategy, matching employees with the company's strategic priorities." He also indicated that many of the former workers had already secured employment with the Mozilla Foundation. I was left with the impression that AOL was denying any plans to phase out Netscape.
If the Netscape browser disappeared, it could affect vendors in the information community who in the past have had to optimize their Web products for both Internet Explorer and Netscape—and multiple versions of each in many cases. For example, when Factiva phased out Dow Jones Interactive, the new product, Factiva.com, was optimized for Internet Explorer and not made compatible with Netscape.
Although AOL claims it will continue to support Netscape, Mozilla apparently has another view. On July 18, Mozilla.org's Web site provided the following Status Update (http://www.mozilla.org/status/2003-07-18.html):
On Tuesday, AOL Time Warner closed the Netscape browser division and laid off or reassigned most of the development team. AOL has agreed to donate Mozilla-related trademarks, the mozilla.org domain name, and equipment (such as the mozilla.org servers) to the Mozilla Foundation. Some staff will be kept on for a couple of months to help with the transition.
While some Netscape developers will continue to contribute to Mozilla as volunteers, the team as a whole will be missed. Netscape made commercial browser development a reality and later showed the world that a major proprietary product could be successfully turned into an open source project. Messages from ex-Netscape employees can be found at ex-mozilla.org.
It didn't take much reading between the lines to realize that as far as the Mozilla people knew (and one would expect they'd be privy to this information), Netscape's demise had begun.
A developer at Mozilla explained that Mozilla was not originally intended to be an end-user product; it was meant to be a technology product. As open source code, it would be available to anyone who wanted to use the technology. Mozilla never advertised the product nor marketed it in any way. AOL/Netscape was its major client and, the developer pointed out, Netscape and Mozilla's browser technologies were very much the same. As I understood it, Netscape's Navigator was a cleaned up version with an end-user-friendly Mozilla interface. But with the development of the Mozilla Foundation, Mozilla now intends to enter the end-user browser market, competing with Internet Explorer, Opera, and others.
The developer would not confirm Netscape's demise. When I pointed him to the excerpt from Mozilla's Web site, he was legitimately surprised and assured me it would be deleted quickly, as it was not supposed to be posted. Though he said there was no basis for the excerpt, I was left with the distinct impression that the facts were known within the foundation but not meant to be released to the public.
Apparently, over the last 6 months, more and more technically oriented people have begun using Mozilla as their primary browser. One reason given is the lack of innovation in Internet Explorer.
With the creation of the new foundation, Mozilla plans to enter the end-user browser war. It has scheduled a major release of an end-user-friendly browser for later this year. Mozilla plans to aggressively pursue market share and make the product available for free downloading. Users who want a CD-ROM version will be charged. And according to the developer with whom I spoke, "Mozilla is the best browser in the universe."
Returning to AOL's Weinstein, I asked him a new question: If there were between 450 and 500 people (after the layoff) still working for Netscape, what were those folks doing? Initially, Weinstein said some were working on AOL projects and others on Netscape. However, when pressed, he admitted that few were working on the browser.
What impact will the (probable) end of Netscape have on information professionals? Most searchers tend to stick with whatever feels the most comfortable. We don't like to spend valuable time learning how to use new software when the old products work fine.
I, for one, have stuck with Netscape through thick and thin and have no desire to switch to Internet Explorer. However, when Factiva.com was no longer compatible with Netscape, I added Internet Explorer to my toolkit. I don't use IE very often—mostly for Factiva and on the rare occasion when a Web site doesn't display properly in Netscape. If that happens more frequently in the future, I may be forced to make IE my major browser. However, I do plan to keep an eye on Mozilla. It could be the wave of the future.