June 26, 2002

Maybe Opera should go Open Source and merge with Macromedia

- by Tina Gasperson -
After all, you could say that Netscape's fortunes took an upturn after it
released its browser source code and created Mozilla.org -- Netscape got bought by
AOL (or you could say the project was doing fine all along, but stay with me). Now
that Macromedia is getting all Open Source friendly, that company could make a
good gravy train for a little browser-maker in Norway.
And Opera isn't advertising it, but we also have the feeling it's not
the richest company in the world. We're not saying they're about to go out of
business -- on the contrary, it's survived well dispensing a for-pay browser
in a "browsers-are-a-commodity" environment. Fans of Opera who don't want to pay
don't even seem to mind the built-in ad banners that come with the cost-free
version. But Opera is self-funded, with some venture capital mixed in, by its
own admission a "small organization,
with limited resources."

So why not emulate another, more famous browser maker: Netscape? Four years ago,
the browser was getting the tar beat out of it by Internet Explorer
(OK, it still is, but that's not the point). Netscape had a pretty good business
selling client-server solutions and brought in millions. It teamed with
companies like AOL, IBM, and Macromedia early on to make the Internet what it is today.

In March of 1998 Netscape released its browser
source code
because it believed in the Open Source collaborative process. It
wanted to encourage the use of Netscape-based components in third-party
products. It wanted to compete more effectively against Microsoft.

Free tips for Opera

"At the time, taking an existing large closed-source project and opening the source seemed like a radical thing to do," says Akkana Peck, a Netscape developer who was there for the birth of Mozilla. But now, "it probably seems like no big deal.

"We had to train ourselves to work in the open," says Peck. "We already used mailing lists for a lot of Netscape development. But when the Mozilla lists were set up, it took a long time before Netscape developers were comfortable discussing internal development issues on the public lists." Peck says that "working in a fishbowl" was hard for Netscape corporate types.

Opera shouldn't have that problem. For one thing, its CTO, HÃ¥kon Wium Lie, studied at MIT and worked for Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web (probably in partnership with Al Gore). Berners-Lee asserts that the power of the Web is the ability to link to everything, a rather open-minded, information-wants-to-be-free statement that hints at favorable conditions for collaborative development.

And Opera isn't a traditional corporate environment -- not even the accountant is wearing a tie for his photo at the company's online fact sheet.

"After releasing the source, the next big problem was: how do we help someone new to the code come in, pull it and build it, and understand it well enough to be able to contribute to it?" says Peck. "Just freeing the source is a nice gesture, but if you don't make it possible for people to contribute then you haven't helped the project."

Peck says the most important contribution that has come from the open-sourcing of Netscape's Mozilla is not the browser itself, "but the Web tools, bugzilla and tinderbox. Making it easy for anyone to do bug queries or add themselves to a bug's cc list was a big step toward getting people involved."

AOL is impressed by Netscape

AOL was
already watching closely, and in late 1998, liking what it saw, decided to marry
Netscape -- maybe just to make Microsoft jealous. The deal certainly increased
the power and visibility of Open Source software, and cemented Netscape's
tech-business immortality.

Opera is no Netscape, and we're not trying to play tour guide or matchmaker or anything, but wouldn't it
be cool if Opera opened its source? It has a platform-independent kernel that
makes porting fast and easy. Opera is fast. It already has a lot of the features
of Mozilla. With hundreds of developers working on it, Opera could offer
more in enterprise solutions. and maybe could get its superior technology
adopted in more places -- remember, it's not necessarily the browser itself but all the neat tools and tweaks that go along with it that could end up being the biggest boons to the industry. It could compete against Microsoft by making a commodity of its basic browser, and keeping a proprietary version like Netscape does.

And if a
forward-thinking company like Macromedia combined forced with Opera and the two
collaborated on some open projects, that might birth some true innovation, and we'd all enjoy that.


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