Zawinski airing Mozilla

Linux has been thriving of late, growing under a media and user sun lamp that shows no sign of dimming. The same cannot be said of Netscape’s open-source initiative.

In what can only be characterized as a very messy divorce, one of Netscape’s founding freeware fathers has fled the fold. And to use his own words, his story is a “cautionary tale” for other vendors seeking open-source salvation.

Jamie Zawinski was one of the leading lights at, the Netscape-sponsored group tasked with the open-source rewrite of Navigator. Zawinski was also the 20th person hired at Mosaic Communications, and therefore he sports some serious Web credentials. Consistent with his Web roots, Zawinski has posted insider details of his time at Netscape, and the picture sure isn’t pretty. Among the more interesting documents is his resignation letter ( The hard-hitting (albeit one-sided) resignation letter itself plus the decision to post it on-line may appear mean-spirited on the surface, but there’s a larger picture here: the site is a chronicle of one person’s gradual disillusionment with big business.

For example, he writes: “When we started this company, we were out to change the world. And we did that…When you see URLs on grocery bags, on billboards, on the sides of trucks…that was us, we did that.”

He continues: “But we did that in 1994 and 1995. What we did from 1996 through 1999 was coast along, riding the wave caused by what we did before.

“Netscape was shipping garbage, and shipping it late.”

Notably, Zawinski makes it clear that his disappointment with is not an indictment of the freeware concept. In fact, the decision to go open-source briefly revitalized his faith in Netscape. The problem, he said, was that Netscape always owned the project, rather than making it a worldwide endeavour.

“Open source does work, but it is most definitely not a panacea. If there’s a cautionary tale here, it is that you can’t take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of ‘open source’ and have everything magically work out.”

That’s one cautionary tale that should be told around a few camp fires – especially those at Microsoft, Apple and Sun Microsystems. Apple and Sun have both made open-source announcements and even Microsoft is now hinting it may join the party. However, the reaction of the freeware community has been lukewarm, indicating that Zawinski’s Mozilla experience may play out elsewhere.

Don’t mess with Linux

I’ve learned a lot about this industry in my four years at ComputerWorld Canada, but recently I discovered one more thing: criticizing Linux generates letters.

In a brief review published in the March 26th issue, I detailed some problems we encountered trying to install Red Hat Linux on a 486. I wrote that the OS choked on the video card, the mouse and the hard drive. I wrote that, once installed, Linux is not user-friendly. I also said the OS was not designed to be warm and fuzzy, but rather it is meant to be full-featured and reliable.

And thus began the letters. Many readers were critical of the review platform, saying that a 486 is not a fair test. Others were critical of the reviewer, as well as the review. Arthur Miriello wrote in to ask “What’s wrong with you people?” and ended with “Hire more common-sense writers, please.” (One letter is published on the facing page, and more will appear next issue.)

The most interesting point – and the one that came up in every letter – was that Linux is no tougher to install than Windows. I’m not sure that’s completely accurate, but even if it’s a slight exaggeration it’s still a very compelling statement. Microsoft has widespread industry support, huge R&D resources and they’re working with a mature product. And Linux – unlike Windows — was not created for non-professional users who need to be hand-held by the OS.

That means either Linux has made great strides in its installation routine – and good for it – or that Microsoft hasn’t, and should.

The third possibility is that operating systems and PCs are by nature very complex and therefore installation will always be problematic. But that’s too terrible to contemplate.