Mozilla's future under debate

Builder: Development problems concerning the Mozilla Suite have led to some soul-searching in the Foundation, with some calling for Firefox to be spun off

The survival of the original Mozilla Suite is very much in doubt as developers question whether the success of stand-alone products Firefox and Thunderbird mean the death of the integrated suite that spawned them.

Mozilla developers on the 'netscape.public.mozilla.seamonkey' newsgroup have been in fierce debate over the future of the open source suite since the minutes of the 28th February mozilla.org staff meeting were posted online on the 7th of March. At that stage the demise of the Mozilla suite was hinted at by one solitary line: "*Mozilla 1.8 final* — to be discussed tomorrow whether we do one".

Discussion on the newsgroup focused on the fact that nobody was currently taking responsibility for the suite (code-named 'SeaMonkey'). As developer Robert Kaiser put it, "What we badly need is an active core developer group and an 'app czar' or project leader". Fellow developer and MIT graduate Boris Zbarsky answered the call, saying: "Absolutely. Do you have people in mind who have time to do this? If so, I'd love to know who they are. They are sorely needed."

The Mozilla community has said for some time that the 1.7 series of the Mozilla suite would be the last stable branch, although Mozilla 1.7.x would continue to receive "sustaining maintenance, including security updates". According to postings on the newsgroup, this feature is particularly in demand by organisations with large existing Mozilla deployments. One user said he had 300 clients still using the Mozilla suite, another claimed he had 100.

Developer Gervase Markham pointed out in the newsgroup that maintaining the Mozilla Suite in addition to Firefox and Thunderbird is "a lot of work, particularly when you have to do releases from all of them near-simultaneously if there's a security issue".

However, as Firefox developer Mike Connor recently pointed out in his blog, "there still isn't any significant groundswell of support for maintaining the monolithic beast. There's still passion out there for the suite, but it needs to be harnessed and channelled into more than just flaming and complaints. No one gets on a bus if they don't know where it's going and it doesn't have a driver. So who's going to drive the bus?"

The community is currently debating possible solutions. One user commented: "One can only hope that the millions of folks that use the suite worldwide aren't forsaken. Perhaps a new direction is called for. You Firefox boys start a separate foundation — 'The Firefox Foundation'. Pass Mozilla on to someone who wants to continue the legacy of Netscape. Frankly, the suite may best be served by getting it into the hands of people who actually want it to be the 'main' product."

And Connor just might agree. In his blog, he pointed out that "Whether people like/want to admit this or not, if the Mozilla Foundation releases a 1.8 final, people will view it as a new stable version that they can migrate to. Which puts MoFo [The Mozilla Foundation] on the hook in users' minds for any stability/security issues that may occur, so MoFo then has to certify their releases."

Connor's solution is to "re-brand the suite to distinguish between the 'official' releases and the new community-driven/owned project." This, according to Connor, "would let the app continue, and evolve, as a 'new' product driven by the community. If there really is concrete and continued demand for the project to continue, the resources and the users will come. And MoFo won’t be on the hook for something they don’t feel is going to continue to be feasible."

After all of the debate, some initial steps towards solving the problem have been taken. A Mozilla Suite Wiki Web site has been established, although currently the site remains bare and without content. The site states: "As we all know, SeaMonkey survival will need a new team that cares about that product and that will take over the lead for its development."

"What we currently need for the survival of this product is some place to turn to for people who want to support us, and a plan how the immediate future of SeaMonkey should look like. Additionally, someone should be the project leader and officially the contact for the "outside world" (MoFo, etc.) on matters that concern the SeaMonkey project. We're still working on that," the Web site states.

According to Connor at least, the solution to the Mozilla Suite's woes is relatively simple. All you need is "a small group of committed hackers (probably 8-10)... [to] decide where things are going, and what the ultimate goals are for the project." Then, a project leader is needed to lead efforts and to create a development roadmap. After that, the Mozilla Suite should be established as a stand-alone application in its own right alongside the Firefox and Thunderbird applications.

Finally, said Connor, any development effort will need to be backed up by "a Quality Assurance team that's deep enough to manage and properly test potential releases".

Renai LeMay reported from Sydney for ZDNet Australia. For more ZDNet Australia stories, click here.