AOL embraces Linux and Mozilla, plans to drop MS Explorer

Newsforge scoop

Sources inside AOL and Red Hat say AOL is making a major internal switch to Linux, and the long-rumored AOL default browser switch from Microsoft's Internet Explorer to Mozilla -- or at least Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine -- is well under way, but AOL will probably not offer an AOL client for Linux in the forseeable future.

According to several Red Hat and AOL employees who spoke to NewsForge but asked us not to use their names, recent negotiations between AOL and Red Hat that led to rumors about AOL considering a Red Hat acquisition were really negotiations for support contracts that will help AOL use Linux more effectively.

AOL is switching to Linux for the same reason most large companies make the change: to save money. Thousands of AOL servers are already 100% Linux, and more are switching over every day. AOL number-crunchers figure they can replace an $80,000 box running proprietary UNIX with two $5,000 Linux boxes and get a 50% increase in performance in addition to the cost savings. "Don't tell our competitors," one of our AOL contacts says. "Let them keep buying expensive crap."

We hear that every hardware vendor who approaches AOL is now being asked, "How is your support for Linux?" before they are even allowed to make a sales presentation.

Microsoft's server products have never been seriously considered by AOL, according to our insiders. "The licenses cost too much, their hardware requirements are excessive, they take too much labor to maintain, and we have enough security problems of our own without adding Microsoft's," says an AOL bean-counter who has access to the company's server cost numbers.

Good-bye Explorer, hello Mozilla

The Gecko rendering engine at the heart of the Mozilla Web browser is scheduled to replace Microsoft's Internet Explorer as AOL's default browser -- the one in the millions of free AOL CDs distributed every year -- in the 8.0 version of AOL's client software. (The current version is 7.0.) The Gecko rendering engine is already being shipped as a "beta" test product in some CompuServe client software packages, and reports from CompuServe users who have chosen to use Gecko instead of Explorer have been described as "very positive." This customer feedback is an important part of AOL's browser decision process. "We hear the question, 'What is the member impact?' whenever we are faced with a technical decision," says one of our contacts. And so far, it sounds like member impact of an AOL switch from Explorer to Gecko will be almost entirely positive.

"With Gecko, we have control over the client software and don't have to worry about Microsoft screwing up our streaming [audio and video]," says one AOL sysadmin. There is also concern at AOL about Explorer's "poor use" of the HTTP 1.1 Protocol. Our AOL sysadmin says, "HTTP 1.1 has lots more features than most people use," but AOL can make good use of many lesser-known ones like chunking, that are not supported by Explorer because, says our AOL sysadmin friend, "MSIE doesn't follow the spec correctly."

Even if future versions of Explorer manage to incorporate chunking and other features AOL wants members to use -- because they minimize download time and bandwith used per Web page delivered -- another AOL techie says, "It's still easier to optimize eveything when we finally control both the server and the client, and can make them work as smoothly together as possible."

All AOL tech people we spoke to denied that corporate dislike of Microsoft played any part in their preference for either Linux or Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine. They said their choices were made purely on what worked best in tests they had run; that their concern was not corporate politics but to make life easier and smoother -- and downloads faster -- for AOL members.

The only thing that might delay -- not stop, just delay -- AOL's change from Explorer to a Mozilla-based browser is allowing time for some of AOL's largest and most important "partner sites" to do away with any Explorer-specific features they have been using in place of W3C standards.

A browser shift by AOL is going to leave an awful lot of companies that assume their Web sites only need to work with Explorer scrambling to rewrite their code so that they don't lose AOL's 30 million-plus subscribers, or about 30% of all U.S. Internet users.

AOL for Linux users? Don't hold your breath

The basic problem with Linux support, says one of our AOL insiders, "is that AOL ALWAYS provides support for free. Hence the client is rather primitive/conservative in its feature set. This makes the AOL client reliable (relative to the software industry standards), because every 800-number support call comes right out of our profits. There are 15,000 AOL employees. Roughly 10,000 work at the Call Centers. We really, really don't want more phone calls from members.

"Now think of a Linux client. Either we completely disavow support for it (which is a very un-AOL thing to do), or we try to support every reasonably-up-to-date Linux config in the world. Even with the reasonably-up-to-date caveat, that is a hard thing to do. Where is the market and the demand?"

There was once a Linux-based AOL client "pseudo-computer" on the market that generated very few support calls, but that was because hardly anyone bought it. It was one of those "Internet appliances" every computer company was hot to sell a couple of years ago, but no consumers seemed to want it in place of a "real" computer.

Perhaps there will be an "AOL-compatible" Linux computer on the market one day, but chances are that it will be sold and supported by a company like OEone, Lycoris or even Lindows, which would probably just try to run the AOL client for Windows under WINE, anyway.

But don't hold your breath. No AOL employee we have talked to, at any level, claims knowledge of any current or future plans to offer AOL client software for Linux users.

What it all means

Obviously, a major AOL support contract would be a big win for Red Hat. It's not in the bag yet; negotiations are not complete and are still "very touchy," says one Red Hat person, and that's why Red Hat is still keeping mum instead of shouting joyfully from the rooftops.

If AOL's techies have their way, the contract will go through without further delay. One of them seems to think it is already a done deal, with only a little i-dotting and t-crossing left before it becomes final. "We get to bitch to Alan Cox about kernel problems now," he says exultantly.

On the browser front, once AOL switches to the Mozilla rendering engine, Netscape and Mozilla users -- and possibly Opera, Galeon and Konq users as well -- will no longer find themselves staring angrily at "Best viewed with Internet Explorer" or "You cannot access all features of this site unless you use Internet Explorer" tag lines -- except, possibly at MSN, which already requires Explorer and Windows Media Player to listen to music. This may be bad for Microsoft, but more Web sites following industry-wide standards is good for everyone else. Maybe the Web Standards Project will finally get some of the respect and cooperation it has deserved all along.

As far as an AOL client for Linux, one Linux-using AOL employee says, "How many Linux people do you know personally who would sign up for AOL if we had a Linux client? I don't know a single one, myself. I have an account with another ISP I use at home with my Linux box, and probably wouldn't use AOL from home even if I could."

The only way AOL could provide a cost-effective Linux client, given its "total support for free" policy, would be to market a real, full-featured personal computer (as opposed to an "Internet appliance") that runs Linux and is preconfigured for AOL. The target market for this computer would not be sophisticated Linux users, but current AOL subscribers who want to replace their current boxes, and it would need to be a very low-cost item to succeed in that market.

Perhaps one of the world's many stalwart Linux entrepreneurs will eventually convince AOL management that an AOL-branded, consumer-priced Linux box is a good idea. Otherwise, AOL will probably stick to the current corporate operating system pattern: Linux in the server room, Windows or Mac on user desktops -- except that AOL-ized desktops will run the AOL browser and its Mozilla rendering engine instead of Microsoft Explorer.

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