Just after closing its acquisition of Netscape Communications Corp., America Online Inc. this week lost one of the company’s key employees who also helped lead Mozilla.org, Netscape’s open-source effort.
Jamie Zawinski, a client engineer at Netscape, left the company Thursday. In a posting explaining to the open-source community explaining his reasons for leaving, Zawinski was highly critical of his former employer.
One of the biggest problems with Netscape, Zawinski believes, is that it got too big to continue being an innovator.
“The company got big and big companies just aren’t creative,” he said in the letter.
Zawinski characterizes January 1998, when the company saw its first round of layoffs, as its darkest period. He said employees realized then for the first time that the company was not invincible and that the browser wars were already lost.
“Microsoft had succeeded in destroying that market. It was no longer possible for anyone to sell Web browsers for money. Our first product, our flagship product, was heading quickly toward irrelevance.”
A bright spot for Zawinski came when Netscape decided to release its source code. He hoped that decision would once again make Netscape a daring company. He quickly began designing the structure of the Mozilla.org organization and started lobbying Netscape employees, hoping to get them to support open source.
“The Netscape I cared about was dead. But I saw mozilla.org as a chance to jettison an escape pod — to give the code we had all worked so hard on a chance to live on beyond the death of Netscape and a chance to continue to have some relevance to the world,” he said.
The problem with the Mozilla.org effort, Zawinski said, is it still belongs wholly to Netscape and only Netscape people are working on it. Were it a true open-source project, Zawinski said, Navigator 5.0 would have already shipped.
“I accept my share of responsibility for this and consider this a personal failure. However, I don’t know what I could have done differently. I can come up with a litany of excuses and explanations for why we are so late.”
Netscape officials expressed regret for Zawinski’s resignation and said he has made a number of important contributions to Mozilla.org. However, the company was quick to point out Mozilla.org will continue.
Netscape has previously said it expects to ship Navigator 5.0, which will be based on the company’s new Gecko layout engine, by the end of the year. Beta versions are expected to be released by early summer.