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Newsletter Section 6

Soap Box




White Hats and Black


(Tom Christiansen)

Thursday, 22 January 1998.

There is no question that today was a day packed full with far more than merely its allotted share of news. We're heard the Unabomber confess his hideous crimes. We've watched the Pope say Mass to his faithful in one of the last remaining communist dictatorships. We've largely ignored for a day or two the building pressure with Iraq. We've nearly overlooked important visiting dignitaries from the ever-flammable Middle East. We casually launched an American spacecraft in a spectacular nighttime blast-off to meet up with our newfound non-enemies, the Russians. We've watched Bill Gates finally blink in a game of chicken with the Attorney General as Microsoft gave in to the government's demands in an historic anti-trust suit, deftly and nearly belatedly dodge the falling sword of an angry judge. And we've watched in sickened horror as the tabloidish media frenzy threatens to unravel the American presidency.

Although some of today's stories may well eventually find their way into future history books, none is so personally relevant to those of us caught up in the Internet Revolution as the wholly unexpected press release from Netscape Communications that not only will they be providing their famous browser gratis as had been anticipated for several weeks now, but that far beyond this, they are taking the unprecedented step of releasing the full source code for that program. This is tremendously exciting news for the freeware community, one that lends credence to our entire ethic. For a while, it wasn't clear what color hat Netscape was wearing. Few in the freeware community thought that hat any lighter than a dirty grey, only a shade better than the black hat perceived to rest upon Microsoft's corporate head.

That's all changed now.

Netscape is shrewd, more clever by half than they let on. Why did they do this? Who benefits and who suffers? Think back to Eric Raymond's thesis regarding two models of software development, the Cathedral and the Bazaar. Eric notes that under the bazaar model, all bugs are shallow, quickly evaporating under the scrutiny of infinite eyes. Furthermore, the wonderfully diverse environment of that bazaar fosters rich creativity.

Suffering under the ever-tightening vise of Microsoft's monopoly of the mediocre, Netscape has hit upon a solution none of us foresaw. Netscape's quandary was simple: how to compete against an opponent so flush with wealth and power that it dwarfs many sovereign nations? The answer was brilliant in its simplicity, breathtaking in its audacity. By releasing the source code of their browser, they return the browser from its exile back to its roots, the freeware world of open systems that created Mosaic.

The number of programmers in the world who do not work for Bill Gates far exceeds those who do. That's where Netscape wins. A person will do for love – in this case, the love of creation, the respect of one's peers – what they will not do for money. The gift culture of uncounted free programmers everywhere will now turn its eye to improving and extending Netscape's browser. The fruits of those labors will be returned back to the world, a free gift.

For the Perl community, several intriguing possibilities immediately come to mind. The first and most obvious of these is that the door is now open for a Perl-augmented browser that would allow us to use Perl with Netscape much as Java and Javascript had been used previously. If you've ever tried programming in those languages, you know why this notion excites us. Another area for exploration may be cross-platform graphical support. Netscape runs a common code base across Unix, Macs, and Windows. Is this a technology that the whole net can benefit from? It doesn't matter whether that technology is under some sort of license to keep it freeware. After all, Perl is already freeware.

For that matter, so is Apache, the net's most popular web server. This means that the World Wide Web's most popular web server, web browser, and web programming language are now all available for free in full source form. The synergistic interactions of these truly open systems are certain to outshine all possible closed, proprietary solutions. In their response to Netscape's dramatic announcement today, Microsoft disingenuously asks just how easy it will be to modify the Netscape source. The obvious answer is clear and compelling: infinitely easier than it will be to modify Internet Explorer's source.

In one bold stroke, Netscape is a contender again, one who has changed the stakes and upped the ante in a way that Microsoft dare not follow. Operating under a completely different set of principles than those which dominate American corporate culture, the freeware gift culture awards prestige and honor not by how many

competitors you kill, nor by how much money you earn, but rather by the value (usually determined by effort, elegance, and usefulness) of what you give away. Under this ethic, Netscape's prestige has just soared to unprecedented heights.

Bibliography

Cathedral and the Bazaar paper http://www.ccil.org/~esr/wri tings/cathedral-paper-1.html

Perl Programming Language http://www.perl.com

Apache Web Server http://www.apache.org

Netscape Communications http://www.netscape.com

Justice v Microsoft Coverage http://headlines.yahoo.com/F ull_Coverage/Tech/Microsoft/



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