July 15, 2004

Mozilla and the future of the Web

Author: Jono Bacon

Since 1998, when Netscape decided to open-source its flagship Netscape Communicator suite and call the project Mozilla, the software has developed into a modern, flexible collection of applications, including the Mozilla browser, email client, chat client, and Web page creation tool, as well as the dedicated Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird email client. To get a deeper understanding of Mozilla and the direction it is heading in, I spoke to Chris Hofmann, the Mozilla Foundation director of engineering.

These days Hofmann is focused on the short-term releases Mozilla is working on. "Releasing a solid Mozilla 1.7 that will help distributors and deployments move up from last year's Mozilla 1.4 has been the priority. With that now out of the way, the next priority is to get Firefox and Thunderbird 1.0 released at the end of this summer. There is a lot of work to do. We will be looking at 0.9 feedback, the final polishing and bug fixing on the engineering side, building up all the marketing and product information, assembling support plans, working to expand the number of international translation packages; the list goes on."

"Brendan Eich, who is responsible for the architecture and technical direction of Mozilla, has been putting together a pretty comprehensive plan for moving all the Mozilla technology to 2.0. He's blogging about this on Mozillazine, and he is working to get feedback from a lot of the top people across the industry. Brendan's recent posts on Mozilla 2.0 platform must-haves and 2.0 Virtual machine goals are examples of the high-level technology planning and detailed exploration that is underway."

Pushing beyond the browser

One new technology the Mozilla project created is the XML User Interface Language (XUL). XUL was originally developed as a means to maintain Mozilla's cross-platform suite more easily, but like many such technologies, XUL has walked in the footsteps of a typical open source project; write some initial code that is useful, then extend and improve it.

Although XUL has certainly proved that much of the technology can work, the lack of substantial XUL applications other than a few notable examples (such as the Mozilla Amazon Browser)has indicated some potential teething issues with the technology. Some users have cited limitations in the way XUL works and how it interacts with other technologies and software. "If we can figure out a way to deliver on the Mozilla 2.0 virtual machine goals, we should add a great deal of flexibility for developers to create interesting, advanced applications using the programming languages they are used to, and support the need to to develop a wider variety of applications," Hofmann says.

The secure Web

With the Mozilla team working in the direction of the Mozilla 2.0 virtual machine and creating technologies such as XUL and XPCOM, Mozilla's component system, security becomes a real issue. Mozilla intends to avoid the kinds of mistakes Microsoft made with ActiveX, which left that technology with more security holes than a pound of Swiss cheese. Hofmann is confident that the technology can be created in a safe, contained environment. "Good security requires a good architecture, a solid trust model, and sandboxing," he says. "It also requires a development organisation that willing to make safe tradeoffs as they arise. I think we have created that kind of culture on the Mozilla project."

Like many other free and open source crusades, the community behind the project would be up in arms if there was the potential that security might be breached or someone's freedoms might be restricted. This is one of the great strengths with the open development model.

"Microsoft made decisions to make software installation as easy as possible with ActiveX at the expense upholding security principals," Hofmann says. "Now we have a mess that has been created by ActiveX, and a small industry built up around distributing Band-Aids to get users out of that mess. Setting strong security levels as the defaults and educating users about the dangers of software installation are two areas that I think can help a lot towards improving security for Internet users."

The issue of security is one that has got out of control for Microsoft, and that has benefited Mozilla. Every day people migrate to Mozilla and Firefox to get away from the spyware and security issues of Internet Explorer, and Microsoft isn't doing anything to change that. Hofmann says, "Microsoft seems unlikely to do a major PR campaign advising developers to move away from ActiveX until they have another proprietary solution in place to lock up the migration. I'm guessing that will come with Longhorn. If I was running a Web site or IT department, I'd be making plans to do this migration from ActiveX on my terms, and I'd be doing it as rapidly as possible".

Still, Hofmann keeps an open mind. "There is always room for collaboration, but Microsoft doesn't seem to be heading in that direction," he says. The potential for collaboration appears to be limited, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the only real force in standardising the Web. "Maybe the best way for that collaboration to happen is through open standards," Hofmann says.

Looking ahead

The Mozilla project is facing an interesting and challenging future. Exciting innovations such as the development of Mozilla as a framework, enhancements in the interaction and usability of Web applications, and the continued development of Mozilla as a browser are bringing the fruits of the developers' labor to the forefront. The Mozilla team is looking to advance browser technology and functionality, in part by collaborating with fellow browser developer Opera and the W3C, and by the continued development of new Web technologies in a public-facing infrastructure with open standards.

Although the XUL, XPCOM, and other technologies may excite developers, one of the most interesting aspects of Mozilla is how it has been successful for regular Internet users. For many, Mozilla provides the features they needed in IE, but in a more stable, secure and efficient package.

This confidence in Mozilla's features and stability led one such business, Speedy Hire in the UK, to roll out Mozilla across over 550 desktop machines. Mark Johnson, the creator of Speedy's solution was confident of the choice. "Speedy decided to use Mozilla in our Linux desktop for various reasons," Johnson says. "The position of Mozilla in our opinion as one of the 'tier one' Linux-based browsers gave us a degree of security knowing that there the support for it will be around for a good few years. We were also attracted by the ability of Mozilla to render HTML the way in which the W3C specs intended. Mozilla also had a very good and simple interface to make multi-user install configuration very easy to administer. These three factors, combined with it being a well-known browser platform, made the decision to pick Mozilla a simple one."

For Mozilla to grow, this real-world angle needs to continue to be a priority, and the project needs to avoid being distracted by technology and politics.

While individuals such as Hofmann are working hard to improve Mozilla, the software's most valuable asset is the community that maintains, develops, discusses, and cares about the Mozilla platform. With it, Mozilla may grow to be the number one tool to protect the open and collaborative nature of the Web and technology that drives it.

Jono Bacon is a freelance writer, consultant and developer who writes for a number of magazines including Linux Format, Linux User & Developer, Linux Magazine, PC Plus and various news websites such as Newsforge and the O'Reilly Network.

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