Opinion

Open source hits release 1.0

The release of Mozilla 1.0 brings a complete open client and server solution a step closer

Some months back I wrote about the imminent arrival of the open source Web browser Mozilla 1.0. At the time it was hard not to be sceptical, so long and painful has its gestation been. And yet Mozilla 1.0 duly appeared, and can be downloaded for a rather impressive array of operating systems. There are comprehensive release notes, as well as other end-user documentation.

Using Mozilla is a slightly poignant experience for anyone who remembers the early versions of Netscape. Back in those days, trying out the latest incarnation of Netscape's browser marked key moments in the medium's - and users' - development.

A visit to Netscape's home site today is downright disconcerting. This is not from any sense of déjà vu - the opposite, rather, since it has almost nothing in common with the page that formed the starting point for so many of us back at the beginning of the new-style Internet. Sadly, the Internet Archive holdings of this page only go back to 1996 - though the earliest copy does offer the frisson of Netscape trumpeting a market share of 80%.

Nostalgia aside, Mozilla 1.0 turns out to be an extremely powerful piece of software - well able to stand comparison with the browser that currently holds 80% of the market, Internet Explorer. However, Mozilla 1.0 is certainly not perfect:

I found a number of sites - even obvious ones such as Amazon.com - whose pages were not rendered completely correctly.

This is not a serious problem - after all, the iterative nature of open source development means that these kind of issues are easily fixed - but is indicative of the fact that Mozilla 1.0 cannot be glibly baptised as the best browser on the market, whatever its other virtues. That title still belongs to Opera, which is not open source but does offer a zero-cost version.

As I have suggested before, Mozilla's real importance lies not so much in its detailed performance as in its simple existence. Taking its Communicator browser suite open source in January 1998 may not have turned the tide for Netscape, but it certainly represented a key moment in the history of open source, and hence of software in general.

By throwing its then considerable prestige behind the idea, Netscape gave free software a fillip at a critical juncture. It is no coincidence that 1998 also saw IBM announce its support for Apache, and Oracle came out with a version of its database running under GNU/Linux. These and the many subsequent announcements have turned Apache, GNU/Linux and open source into serious business options, to the point where today nobody even calls the idea into question.

But this is not true on the desktop, where Microsoft reigns supreme largely because of a lack of serious competitors. Although open source projects such as Gnome and KDEOffice continue to make good progress, they have not been taken up as serious desktop solutions by general users. This made the launch of Openoffice 1.0 particularly important, since it offered compatibility with Microsoft Office, together with support options from Sun for its paid-for Staroffice variant.

Like Mozilla 1.0, Openoffice 1.0 is not quite perfect: some features in Microsoft Word documents, for example, are displayed incorrectly. But these are minor quibbles; overall, the Openoffice suite will meet the needs of the vast majority of business users for a desktop suite, just as Mozilla does for Internet browsing and Ogg Vorbis 1.0 does for audio compression and streaming.

As a result, open source is fast-approaching the point where it can offer a complete client and server solution - call it Open Source 1.0. Hard-pressed IT departments would be foolish not to bear it in mind as an option for the future.

Next week: Icann can?

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This was first published in August 2002

 

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