Mozilla releases last 'fat' browser

The new release of Mozilla's open-source browser marks the end of a five-year-old regime, as the project prepares to shift to a leaner, simpler code base

On Monday the Mozilla project released its latest open-source browser, version 1.4, its last incarnation before developers switch their efforts to a new, slimmed-down version of the software. Simultaneously, AOL Time Warner has released version 7.1 of the commercial Netscape browser, based on the Mozilla 1.4 code.

Besides offering a smattering of new features, bug fixes and performance improvements, the new software is significant because it marks a major change in the direction of development for the five-year-old open-source project.

Following release 1.4, Mozilla developers will begin working on a new version based on software known internally as "Firebird", for the browser client, and "Thunderbird", for the mail client. The new software is designed to be simpler and faster to download.

Among new features for Netscape 7.1 and Mozilla 1.4 are support for NTLM authentication, needed to communicate with some Microsoft Web and proxy servers; an overhaul in the way the browsers handle bookmarks; context menu items in the mail client to streamline handling of junk mail; and a number of new options for controlling the way files are downloaded, HTML messages are composed and images are blocked.

Future releases will be based on a slimmed-down, Mozilla-based browser introduced in September 2002 that was originally called "Phoenix", but has been changed to "Firebird". The project will also use Phoenix's mail client, originally called "Minotaur" but renamed "Thunderbird".

Because of a controversy over the Firebird name, Mozilla will only use "Firebird" and "Thunderbird" internally, and will officially refer to the software as "Mozilla Browser" and "Mozilla Mail".

Under the new plan, first unveiled in April, Mozilla will abandon its XPFE toolkit for creating the browser's user interface. Instead, the main Mozilla code will come from what began as the Phoenix project, a stripped-down version of Mozilla written with Extensible User Interface Language (XUL). XUL -- introduced four years ago by Netscape and Mozilla engineers -- renders the browser with standard Web technologies, rather than platform-specific computer coding languages.

The idea behind the switch is to slim down the main Mozilla code, which critics and participants alike have judged to be too big and too slow. Under the new plan, the basic code will come with fewer bells and whistles, but will include a way of adding on features as needed.

Mozilla's weight problem has been a source of embarrassment for the project for some time. When the project launched five years ago, its goal was to create a core browsing engine that was small and fast. This January, Apple opted to use the KHTML browser engine -- the heart of the open-source K Desktop Environment's (KDE) Konquerer browser -- as the basis for its own Safari browser, citing KHTML's smallness in contrast to the open-source competition.

In response to that snub, one Mozilla staff member acknowledged that "Gecko missed its 'small-and-lean' target by an area code, and we've been slogging back toward the goal, dragging our profilers and benchmarks behind us, for years."

Meanwhile, projects inside and outside the open-source group have proliferated to slim down Mozilla, including Galeon, Epiphany and Camino (formerly Chimera).

Mozilla 1.4 can be downloaded from the Mozilla.org Web site. Netscape 7.1 can be downloaded from the Netscape Web site.

News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.


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