AOL tests open source browser, server software

America Online Inc. (AOL) is undergoing a taste test of several open-source software products to run various parts of its Internet service, a move seen by some as the beginning of its shift away from Microsoft Corp.’s Web-browsing software and from Unix on its servers.

The company, a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner Inc., last week began testing new software to run the Web browser that accompanies its AOL Internet service software, said Jim Whitney, a company spokesman.

Employing technology developed by its subsidiary Netscape Communications Corp. and by open-source software contributors, AOL has shipped a test version of its AOL Internet-service software without browser technology formerly provided by AOL rival Microsoft. The AOL Internet service-software is the software used by AOL subscribers to connect to the Internet and access the proprietary AOL Internet service.

The browser in this test version of the AOL software is powered by what is known as the “Gecko” engine, which is the technology responsible for allowing Web pages to be displayed in a browser. The Gecko engine is being tested with version 7.0 of the AOL Internet-service software and takes the place of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

“It is technology that we’ve continued to develop over the past few years,” Whitney said.

In addition to powering the Netscape browser since Version 6.1, Gecko is also at the core of an open source Web browser called Mozilla. With a number of Netscape programmers contributing to that project, the Mozilla browser is gaining steam as a popular browser, and is included in such desktop software packages as Red Hat Inc.’s Linux operating system distribution.

It is too early to tell whether AOL is considering making a full-blown switch to the Gecko engine, Whitney said. If it did, the move would bring an end to another aspect of AOL’s rocky relationship with Microsoft .

In June, the companies ended a years-long deal in which AOL used Internet Explorer as its default browser in order to have Microsoft place AOL’s Internet service-software icon on the Windows operating system desktop. Netscape has also filed a private antitrust suit against Microsoft, related to the U.S. government’s antitrust case against the software maker.

While the switch from Internet Explorer to Gecko would make a notable mark in the relationship of the two companies, the change in AOL’s Internet Service software will not likely be noticed by users, Whitney said.

“We try to make our technology pretty invisible,” he said.

In addition to its test work replacing its browser technology with software developed by the open source community, the Internet company is also installing Linux software on its servers, Whitney said.

Most of the servers running AOL’s back-end systems run Unix, an operating system that has long been capable of handling the heavy traffic and providing the computing power necessary for managing large corporate computer systems.

Rumors have surfaced that AOL’s foray into the Linux world may be due to some technical help from Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat. Reports of various dealmaking between Red Hat and AOL have come up in the past — once in January when the Washington Post reported that AOL could be in talks to acquire the Linux vendor.

“If a deal were to be struck between Red Hat and AOL, (a service contract) is the most likely form it would take,” said Brent Williams, a research analyst with New York investment bank McDonald Investments Inc.

In January, Williams authored a research note titled “RHAT Bought by AOL? Before or After Space Aliens Bear Elvis’ Love Child,” joining the chorus of executives and analysts who doubted a takeover bid.

Whitney would not comment on whether or not AOL was entering into a services relationship with Red Hat but said that such a deal would not be inconceivable.

“We do relationships of all kinds,” he said. “To Red Hat it would be a decent contract.”

In an interview last week, Red Hat’s chief technology officer Michael Tiemann was also tight lipped about AOL as a possible Red Hat customer. However, he said the company will announce earnings for the fiscal fourth quarter 2001 on Tuesday, a forum where Red Hat typically announces major customer wins.

“If there is anything to announce that is when we typically report our latest enterprise news and key customers,” Tiemann said.