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AOL Netscape deal questions open source commitment

Mozilla reckons its safe, but AOL's past and future plans suggest otherwise

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AOL's acquisition of Netscape has thrown the latter's commitment to open source software into doubt and could provoke a battle royal over just who owns its browser technology. Back in January, Netscape finally conceded that, with Microsoft shipping Internet Explorer free of charge, it would have to do the same for Communicator. It also made the cunning move of announcing it would release the source code of Communicator 5. The plan allowed users free access to the code and the right to tinker with it, provided any modifications, amendments and new features were submitted back to Netscape's open source admin team, collectively known as Mozilla, for verification and incorporation in the next release of the source alongside the work of Netscape's own coders. It's the way Linux is now developed, and so Netscape was able to win even more anti-Great Satan of Software kudos than it had already. That was then. Now, AOL technically owns the Communicator source code -- or, rather, it will do once shareholders and regulators have given the deal the go-ahead -- and may prove rather less keen on open source than Netscape. For the moment, Mozilla-ites reckon they're safe -- as one member, Jamie Zawinski, wrote on the group's Web site: "What if AOL hates open source? The Mozilla code is out there, and it cannot be recalled. It has been distributed under an open source licence, and nobody can ever take that away from you." True, but the "open source licence" only appears to refer to Communicator Standard Edition 5.0 -- there's arguably nothing (but Open Sourcers' opprobrium) to stop AOL pulling version 6.0 (Navigator 2000, anyone?) back into the fold. Of course, open work on 5.0 could continue, but it's hard to see it retaining widespread support once it's been superseded by a probably more advanced version. Given AOL clearly has its eyes on wider markets than PC-based Web browsing (see Netscape deal founds Sun-backed 'AOL Everywhere' scheme), it's highly likely AOL will want full control of the software that's likely to form a large part of the interface to the new devices that plan is founded upon. At the press conference, Sun and AOL said they will both develop the next generation of Navigator and Communicator clients, which suggests that it will, at least initially, be pulled out of the open source arena. Of course, in the PC space, AOL has its own interface, which can easily be reconfigured to use Navigator instead of IE whether Navigator 5.0 is open source or not. And it could continue with its wider plans and still allow Communicator to continue as open source. But given AOL has always used proprietary software, that too doesn't bode will for the open future of Netscape browser technology either. "mozilla.org is not Netscape. And it is not now, nor will it ever be, AOL," says Zawinski. True, but you really can't that about the software it's based on. ®

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