Users mull over Netscape code

Maybe software developers and hackers can't wait for Netscape Communications Corp. to release the source code for its Communicator browser later this month. But user companies aren't racing to get the code, even though many look favorably on Netscape's newfangled idea to spur client innovation.

Maybe software developers and hackers can't wait for Netscape Communications Corp. to release the source code for its Communicator browser later this month. But user companies aren't racing to get the code, even though many look favorably on Netscape's newfangled idea to spur client innovation.

"I would be concerned if someone had the source code here," says Allan Ditchfield, chief information officer at Progressive Insurance Co. in Ohio.

His chief worry? One of his developers might insert a unique twist into the browser that would make it difficult for the company to upgrade to new browsers later.

Ditchfield says he isn't in the business of maintaining source code for commercial products.

Neither is BC Telecom Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia. The company had a bad experience making heavy modifications to its mainframe operating system, says Rick Waugh, a senior systems analyst at BC Telecom.

"It ends up being expensive. You have to make sure all the changes you've made are compatible with the new version of the operating system or with new versions of software that are compatible with the operating system," Waugh says. "I would look at this as the exact same thing."

For many corporations, there are more pressing issues than innovating the World Wide Web client. "In corporate computing, the last thing you want to do with a vendor's product is alter it so it can't be supported," says Sherman Woo, a director of U.S. West Communications Inc.'s Global Village intranet.

Woo says he is content to wait for improvements in the branded version of Netscape's product. Although Netscape has yet to finalise licensing terms for the source code, tentative plans call for innovations to be turned back to the company for possible incorporation into a future branded version of the product.

"By giving away the free source code, it means that some kids in garages can go out there and play with a whole bunch of ideas," Woo says. "And if they develop something pretty cool and send it back to Netscape, then they'll put their official stamp on it and we'll buy it."

A Web consultant at a major auto manufacturer said his company is interested in the source code to bring server-side modifications, such as homegrown security features, to the client. But the company still wouldn't deploy it widely unless Netscape or another company added the features to a branded product and provided support, he says.

Yet despite such reservations, most corporate users say they like the idea of Netscape opening up development of its client to the Internet community.

David Sims, technical manager at Schlumberger Ltd. in Sugar Land, Texas, said he likes the freely available Linux operating system that he uses. The Linux model is one of several that Netscape officials are studying.

"It's good to get the international freelance developer community to ding on [the browser] a bit — get the bugs out and make it work right," Sims says. "Then, we'll have one more building block that works flawlessly, and that's going to do good things for corporate people."

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