Why Open Source is not Magic Pixie Dust, Part 284

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One of the pivotal moments in the rise of free software was 22 January 1998, when the following statement appeared:

Netscape Communications Corporation today announced bold plans to make the source code for the next generation of its highly popular Netscape Communicator client software available for free licensing on the Internet. The company plans to post the source code beginning with the first Netscape Communicator 5.0 developer release, expected by the end of the first quarter of 1998. This aggressive move will enable Netscape to harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet by incorporating their best enhancements into future versions of Netscape's software.

Here, then, was the first – and for a while, the most successful – Internet company, giving away what many had regarded as its crown jewels. Of course, it was not a decision taken lightly, but the company had been forced to take dramatic steps in the face of its catastrophic loss of browser market share thanks to the steadily improving versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer – and its own missteps.

The move was widely reported, and led to the ideas behind free software being introduced to many people for the first time. But the initial hopes of that announcement were not realised. Turning Netscape's Communicator program – the name used for the expanded version of Netscape Navigator, including extra functionality like email – into Mozilla, as the new code was baptised, proved much harder than expected.

One of the people most deeply involved in that process – and most disappointed in its failure to deliver an open source version within a reasonable time-frame - was Jamie Zawinski. By 1999, he found himself working for AOL, which had bought Netscape in November 1998. In the face of that failure, he decided to leave the company, and wrote an impassioned and important post entitled “resignation and post mortem” about why he was doing so. It concluded:

My biggest fear, and part of the reason I stuck it out as long as I have, is that people will look at the failures of mozilla.org as emblematic of open source in general. Let me assure you that whatever problems the Mozilla project is having are not because open source doesn't work. 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. Software is hard. The issues aren't that simple.

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