Increasingly, companies are viewing open source code releases as a cheap and easy way to enlist legions -- numbering in the thousands -- of new developers to their cause. On Monday, Netscape released the source code for its next-generation browser, code-named Gecko. At the same time, IBM announced it will release the source code of its Jikes Java compiler.
Netscape made headlines earlier this year when it announced it would release the closely-guarded "source code" programming of its popular Navigator browser to the public, so that anyone could alter it and contribute to the further development of the software.
The move was a calculated gambit by Netscape management that it had more to gain by "opening" up its source code than by keeping it proprietary. Executives looked to the example of other collaborative (or "open source") development efforts popularised by the Web server Apache and by Linux, an open-source duplicate of the Unix operating system. While such projects were once the province of enthusiasts, they are receiving increasing attention from the business world, analysts say.
Linux, in particular, has benefited from the Department of Justice's anti-trust trial against Microsoft, where it has been presented as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating system. Small businesses and even enterprises are creating increasing demand for Linux applications, and those applications are beginning to appear, analysts say.
Enterprise tools for Linux became more common after IBM, Oracle, Sybase and other database players endorsed the operating system earlier this year. An enterprise-level support structure is still lacking for the OS, however, analysts said. "What we're seeing there is not a mature, but an active development community," said analyst Chris LeToq with Dataquest. "The challenge in the Linux space is ... the need for communities which focus on system management, to provide the services that need to be available on top of Linux."
But if open-source development is to have a future with businesses, organisations will have to find ways of providing technical support. "What's missing is an entity on the other end of the index finger who the IT manager needs to point to and say 'it's broke, you fix it,' " said analyst Martin Marshall, with Zona Research. Marshall said groups such as Red Hat, which do offer support for Linux or other open-source projects, show "there is a momentum" for the methodology.
Gecko includes essential contributions from open-source collaborators, including an XML parser designed by James Clark. Its support for the cascading style sheets standard was bug-checked by the inventor of style sheets, Hakon Lie. "Where [open source has] been most effective is in building Gecko at a very rapid pace," said Angus Davis, Netscape product manager for Gecko. "It has features like complete standards support and high performance that we would not have been able to develop as quickly without open-source contributions." He said 200,000 copies of the Navigator source code have been downloaded since March.
The open source methodology could give Netscape an advantage in how quickly it can incorporate new features into its browser, but observers said it is still too early to tell how successful the company will be. "The benefit of it is that it produces a parallel development environment," said LeToq. "You can take advances other people and developers are making and incorporate them into the core application. The question is whether Netscape has got its development group to the point where that's going to happen."
Linux, Apache and Netscape's open-source projects are by far the most prominent, but other open-source projects have showed signs of promise. For example, NewHoo, an open-source directory, has grown to include over 100,000 sites in only a few months. The volunteer-built site was acquired by Netscape, and will be renamed Open Directory Project.