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Mozilla Proposes Shift to Phoenix

The minds behind the Mozilla Web browser this week announced a major shift in strategy, one that focuses more on quality than quantity.

In a memo to the Mountain View, Calif.-based consortium, longtime project leaders Brendan Eich, David Hyatt outlined a new roadmap suggesting that Mozilla adopt a new application architecture based on the Gecko Runtime Environment (GRE) and make Phoenix its standalone default browser. The pair also suggest that Mozilla 1.4 should replace the 1.0 branch as the stable development path, and then move on to make riskier changes during the 1.5 and 1.6 releases.

"It's clear to us that Mozilla needs a new roadmap, one that charts a path to an even better future," Eich and Hyatt said. "The 1.0 branch is almost a year old. It's time to move from 1.0 to 1.4 for mozilla.org-blessed stable development and product releases, to get all the stability, performance, and security fixes made on the trunk since 1.0 into the hands of distributors and users."

The Web browser, which has been heavily supported by AOL and Netscape, has seen great advances in features such as tabbed browsing, popup blocking, and http://paulgraham.com-inspired Bayesian spam filtering, along with faster, more focused browser projects such as Phoenix and Camino (formerly Chimera). The group that distributes Mozilla recently released the alpha copy of version 1.4.

But, since the release of Mozilla 1.0, in June 2002, the browser has been plagued with conflicting hacker troubles and bug fix after bug fix after bug fix.

The browser is also getting bogged down by tons of applications requested by each segment of the Mozilla community, which can make load-in times slower.

Because of that, Eich and Hyatt say they are calling for Mozilla's departure of its traditional "Swiss army knife" approach. The two say Phoenix is better because it has a strong "add-on" extension mechanism.

"We recognize that different users need many different features; such demand is legitimate on its face. Attempting to 'hardwire' all these features to the integrated application suite is not legitimate; it's neither technically nor socially scaleable," said Eich and Hyatt

The plan is to also adopt Phoenix's partner mail application (currently known as Minotaur, leading to Thunderbird). The pair say Mozilla's mail has many fine features, but it suffers from too many integration points with the other apps, and it remains a complicated front end maintained by too few people, most of whom have different day jobs now.

The wakeup call may have been the launch of the Safari Web browser by Apple Computer . The Macintosh-based platform rooted on the KDE Project's KHTML code is reportedly winning converts even in its beta stage.

Eich and Hyatt said they are not abandoning plans to support the Macintosh platform, insisting that daily and milestone builds of it for OS X will still be made available. But the speed in which Apple was able to build its browser must have been sobering.

"We must do less, but better, and with sound extension mechanisms, so that (for example) the community does not fight over user interface pigeon-holes such as the main menu items."

The pair say Mozilla should continue following a quarterly milestone plan that emphasizes regular delivery of stable new-feature releases, ideally with risky changes pushed into an "alpha" minor milestone, followed by stabilization during a "beta" period, then a shorter freeze during which only "stop-ship" bugs are found and fixed.

As their proposal is still just a proposal, Eich and Hyatt conceded that if enough contributors sign up to keep the XPFE-based browser working, mozilla.org would consider supporting that browser on the trunk beyond 1.4. However, the group said it may not have all the necessary tools and other resources needed to keep two different toolkit-based browser applications "well-tested."

"We request that those companies and organizations shipping products based on Mozilla-the-application-suite let us know their plans in light of this new proposed roadmap," Eich and Hyatt said.

Even thought the pair are convinced that something has to be done soon, it remains to be seen how the community will react to the proposal.