20 July 2000
For the Good of the Web:
An Open Letter to Netscape
TWO YEARS AGO, when your market share was still high as a kite, you pledged to fully support five key standards in the next version of your browser. Having urged you to do this very thing, we praised your decision to everyone who would listen. Developers and the trade press quickly joined the chorus. We all anticipated that Microsoft and other browser makers would be forced to emulate your support for XML and the DOM out of sheer competitiveness. But mainly, Netscape, we all expected you to release a product. And to quickly take Navigator 4, a browser that forces developers to write non-valid code, off the market.
At last you are talking about shipping product by the end of the year. Sounds great except that it's the wrong year. The end of 2000 is a long time to wait for a product announced in 1998.
Sorry, Netscape. We believe in what you're trying to do, and we wish we could muster more enthusiasm. But two years in Internet time is a decade in any other industry. You once virtually owned this virtual space. How could you forget such a simple fact of the market you used to dominate?
In the two years you've spent not releasing a browser, Microsoft has released three. One did a fine job of supporting CSS and HTML 4, and we hailed it accordingly. The other two were just short of the mark, and we blasted Microsoft for crimes against humanity. You continued to toil over Mozilla, implicity earning our praise while Microsoft garnered our censure. No wonder they are sick of talking to us, and tired of improving their support for standards, only to be told it's not enough.
Netscape, you have placed W3C standards advocates in the unenviable position of supporting plans instead of products. After two long years of endorsing your goals and barely mentioning the fact that your existing product is the least standards-compliant browser on the market we've begun to question our wisdom, if not our very sanity.
How can standards advocates continue to point to your example while criticizing other browser makers? How can we demand that Microsoft "do what Netscape is doing," when, from a business perspective, "what Netscape is doing" is bleeding market share while failing to ship product? We appreciate the sacrifice you've made, but the loss of time and market share are not likely to inspire your competitors to emulate your actions.
Some will say we are to blame for your woes, since we were the ones demanding full compliance with standards. Frankly, if we had known you could not deliver a stable, usable, standards-compliant browser in under two years, we would not have asked you to try. More frankly still, we suspect you would have taken a more "realistic" approach if you'd realized it would take you this long to deliver the goods. But wasn't it your job to know whether or not you could pull this off before you pledged to do it? Estimating software delivery dates is notoriously tricky, we admit but two whole years?
Gosh, guys, you were the company most responsible for making the web attractive to commercial developers. And you held onto your marketing lead for years, in spite of competing with a company nobody has ever beaten. When you announced your plans to fully support standards, surely you had project managers in place who were able to estimate realistic completion dates. Surely your management consulted with project managers and developers before taking one of the greatest risks any company ever took. Nobody believed that a company with so much to win and lose would undertake this task lightly or blindly.
Why are you taking forever to deliver a usable browser? And why, if you are a company that believes in web standards, do you keep Navigator 4 on the market?
If you genuinely realized it would take two years to replace Netscape 4, we wish you would have told us. No market, let alone the Internet, can stand still that long. We would have told you as much.
YES, WE STILL ADMIRE the risk you took when you threw out your old rendering engine in order to build a fully standards-compliant browser from the ground up. Yes, we still think full standards compliance is the right goal for all browser makers, and we applaud your determination to be the first to achieve that goal.
But until you do, your users are stuck with Navigator 4, whose standards support we can only characterize as atrocious. At this point, the biggest headache developers face is not IE5 or Opera 4; it's Netscape Navigator 4 your last released product. No wonder even your staunchest fans are abandoning this browser in droves.
We wish everyone shared your passion to do the right thing and deliver XML and the DOM inside the browser. But if it takes you another six months to pull this off, the world's first fully standards-compliant browser could be playing to an empty house. And the message such a failure would send is: "Don't support standards if you want to stay in business." If you send the world that message, you will have harmed the cause you meant to help.
Those who look more closely will realize that software development issues, not W3C standards, are to blame for the endless delays. But who looks closely in this environment? On the web, people click, scan, and go somewhere else. The perception that standards are somehow to blame is enough to cause harm.
We trust that you will eventually release a great browser. We hope that you can do so while the market is still willing to look at it, and that when the job is done, you can reverse the decline in your fortunes. We're certain that the Mozilla platform will serve users and developers well. But it's hard to sell the platform if the browser is not there. And while we all wait, Navigator 4 rots on the market like unrefrigerated cabbage.
Netscape, when you threw out your old browser, you took a bullet for the good of the web. But by failing to deliver the next generation, you point a loaded gun at everyone who supports your efforts.
Continuing to periodically "upgrade" your old browser while failing to address its basic flaws has made it appear that you still consider Navigator 4 viable. It is not. You obviously know that, or you would not be rebuilding from scratch. But keeping your 4.0 browser on the market has forced developers to continue writing bad code in order to support it. Thus, while you tantalize us with the promise of Mozilla and standards, you compel us to ignore standards and write junk code in order keep our sites accessible to the dwindling Netscape 4.0 user base. It's a lose-lose proposition, on our end and yours.
For the good of the web, it is time to withdraw Navigator 4 from the market, whether Netscape 6 is ready or not. Beyond that, if you hope to remain a player, and if you expect standards advocates to keep cheering you on, you must ship Netscape 6 before its market evaporates along with the dream of a web based on open standards.
If you succeed now, you will regain some of the trust and market share you have lost. And instead of arguing with your competitors, standards advocates will be able to sit back and watch them try to catch up with your support for XML and the DOM.
If you fail now, the web will essentially belong to a single company. And for once, nobody will be able to blame them for "competing unfairly." So please, for your own good, and the good of the web, deliver on your promises while Netscape 6 still has the chance to make a difference.