Open-source browsers pick up steam

There's little doubt: An effective Java browser could be the crown jewel for Sun Microsystems' ability to showcase its programming language to resellers and software developers.

Sun recently announced a deal with ally America Online to include Java 1.2 functionality in the pending Communicator 5.0 browser. Meanwhile, designs for a Java-based Mozilla browser have sprung back to life in two open-source settings.

Indeed, the open-source Jazilla effort, launched weeks after Netscape uncorked its client source code in March 1998, has picked up steam of late, say contributors. The group's unwavering goal is to develop a complete Java browser based on the open-source Mozilla code.

Meanwhile, coders within the Mozilla project also are pressing ahead with Grendel, a Java-based mail/news component for the open-source browser. Spearheaded by a Sun engineer in his free time, Grendel has an outside shot of making it into the Communicator 5.0 release.

Developers on both open-source projects say a feeling of "coopetition" exists between the two Java undertakings. At the same time, both camps believe they can better Sun's HotJava browser, a lightweight client best suited for Internet devices and applications. "HotJava is an excellent step forward, but many feel [it] is not as good as a Java browser could be," says Al Sutton, a key developer on the Jazilla project.

Volunteer programmers are shouldering the bulk of the workload on both open-source projects. Although AOL still pays several programmers to weigh in on the Mozilla project, Sun contributions to the Java projects have been less. "Sun hasn't given us any developers or special treatment, but that is understandable. They have their own browser to work on," says Sutton.

Most developers say they are motivated to contribute because a single Java browser, with its ability to run on any platform, could potentially eliminate the need for browser defects and multiple versions of a single Web page. Other programmers are convinced that the Java language can spit out a more stable browser than C or C++, says Jeff Galyan, leader of the Grendel project.

However, the long-term success of these Java browsers could boil down to the same question that has plagued Mozilla in its 15 months of existence: Will enough developers get on board?