The Python language (www. python.org/) may be less well-known, but is widely appreciated by Web cognoscenti. And Sendmail (www.sendmail.org/), the most popular E-mail server program, also belongs to this select band, as does BIND, the main domain name system server software (see www.isc.org/bind.html).

The previous cultural divide between the free software community and business users was bridged in the most dramatic way by Netscape’s announcement in January that it would not only be giving away its forthcoming Communicator product, but making the source code available. That is, anyone would be able to take the program, modify it and then use it for any purpose.

In fact this free availability of the source code – rather than the zero price-tag – is the key defining characteristic of all the free products mentioned above. It is what makes such software so powerful. By throwing open the development process a kind of virtual programming team is created that potentially encompasses anyone on the Internet. In particular, bug-testing is carried out automatically on a huge scale, often resulting in greater reliability than commercial products.

This approach has been dubbed Open Source by its leading theorist, Eric Raymond. His analysis, called The Cathedral And The Bazaar, of how the Open Source movement works – and why it is so successful – apparently played an important part in convincing Netscape to take the unprecedented step of opening up its software development process.

Of course, cynics will argue that such a move was simply a desperate last gamble by a company that has been comprehensively outflanked by Microsoft, not least by giving away its browser from the start. And it is no doubt true that Netscape would never have countenanced such a risky move without this prodding from its rival.

But there is increasing evidence that Netscape is indeed tapping into an important movement that could well see a major reversal of its decline in the browser arena.

One indicator is the extremely positive response the company has received from the wider Internet community. As well as the several hundred thousand copies of the source code the company claims have been downloaded, there are a number of major projects and sites supporting the Mozilla movement.

Cryptographic

For example, Netscape was unable to release all the cryptographic code in its browser because of US export regulations. But the Australian-based Mozilla Crypto team succeeded in writing their own -version 15 hours after Netscape released its code. Another group is working on Jazilla, a Java-based version of the browser.

Netscape’s Mozilla has also acquired XML capabilities overnight through James Clark’s expat program.

The Open Source movement is gaining other adherents: recently Corel said it would be releasing all the code for a toolset for a forthcoming Linux-based network computer. It is not hard to see many of Microsoft’s other hard-pressed competitors embracing this form of guerrilla software development.