Netscape 6.0: Best ... or buggiest?

When you're developing an open-source browser, beta testers are likely to be a lot more open with criticisms of your product.

Is Netscape 6.0 going to be the best or the buggiest browser on the market?

It depends on which of the testers engaged in a very public argument you believe.

Netscape 6.0 is the delayed version of the America Online/Netscape Communications browser that is due to ship before the end of this year.

The browser has been developed by Netscape engineers, in conjunction with the open-source developers who are part of the open-source project.

Earlier this week, David Flanagan, an O'Reilly & Associates technical book author, posted a note and a petition asking Netscape to delay releasing Netscape 6.0 until the company patches some serious "standards compliance" bugs.

Flanagan cited several bugs reported in the Bugzilla database that he believed needed to be fixed before Netscape made its open-source browser debut.

These include bugs that would result in Netscape's break in compliance with HTML, DOM (Document Object Model), cascading style sheet, and ECMAscript standards, Flanagan charged.

He said the fact that Netscape 6.0 will function as not just a browser, but a software development platform in its own right, makes such standards compliance all the more critical.

Flanagan summarized his arguments and feedback from posters in a second article published on the O'Reilly web site on Wednesday.

But this war of words raises an interesting side issue.

Does "open" apply to everything in the open-source realm -- even the way differing opinions are aired?

As one posting on the Mozilla e-zine site "Mozillazine" noted wryly: "If Mozilla wasn't open source, exactly the same thing would be happening with Netscape 6 -- but behind closed doors, without any media fuss, and with a boatload more bugs because of the lack of external contribution and oversight."

O'Reilly author Flanagan claimed: "In a number of cases, Mozilla engineers have fixed standards-compliance bugs and have had their patches to the source code reviewed twice by senior engineers.

"Even when the patches are extraordinarily simple ones, and the Mozilla engineers are convinced that they pose no risk of introducing other bugs, their requests to include the fixes into the Netscape 6 release are denied by the Netscape Product Development Team (PDT) out of fear, apparently, that accepting these patches would cause the release schedule to slip."

Neither Netscape nor Mozilla officials -- contacted for comment on Flanagan's charges -- responded before publication of this story.

Netscape has been criticized by industry watchers and archrival Microsoft for the failure of previous versions of its browser to comply fully with Internet standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and other groups.

Some open-source backers came to Netscape and Mozilla's defense, however.

In a posting to the Mozilla e-zine, editor Chris Nelson refuted Flanagan's claims.

"Any reasonable, objective assessment of the application (Netscape 6.0) would prove that it is much more compliant than any browser currently on the market (yet you don't hear Mr. Flanagan petitioning against the release of iCab or (Microsoft's) IE6 or (KDE's) Konqueror)," Nelson said.

Furthermore, as a result of cross-posting to Slashdot -- a Web site for open-source-enthusiasts -- Flanagan's "petition now overflows with rants against Netscape, and I bet not one of these ravers has done even a modest assessment of Netscape 6's standards compliance," the Mozillazine editor continued.

"Netscape is in the unenviable position of choosing between bug-fixes and product release -- the Scylla and Charybdis of software development. They've set their course. Maybe they will stop and reassess. That's up to the Netscape managers and the PDT team.

"But the waters grow increasingly insipid, and they might just end up deciding that it's not worth the trouble and pack it all up and call it a day. Maybe they can put in the past this peanut-gallery micro-management Hell that they've fallen into," Nelson concluded.