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Code Warriors

[whitespace] Marc Andreessen & friends
Diane McSweeney

They came, they saw, they dove for gift certificates from Fry's

By Michael Learmonth

And they danced beneath the code.

Er, that was the idea anyway. In reality, there was a lot more standing, staring and video-game-playing than gratuitous booty-shaking. The object of their attention was a wall of the Sound Factory in San Francisco, onto which the entire Netscape Communicator source code was being projected in scrolling red type. Those able to break out of their trancelike states waved $20 bills at a besieged bartender. Others bobbed stiffly as a band played in the next room.

The host of the party and author of the seminal Mosaic Web browser, Marc Andreessen, towered over the crowd, watching four years of work flash by in two million lines on the wall.

"If you stand and watch for six hours, you'll see the whole thing," he said, his voice conveying a slight hint of awe at the magnitude of what Netscape, the company he founded, is giving away.

Netscape has long given its browser away for free. But now Netscape is giving away not only its newest product, Communicator 5.0, but the actual code behind it. This will allow code jockeys to freely manipulate, tailor and otherwise monkey with Netscape's code, as long as they share the results of their ingenuity with the world.

Now that the bloody browser wars have been fought and won by Microsoft, Netscape is retreating to the hills and banding together a guerrilla army to develop, improve and disseminate the Netscape Internet browser underground. Maybe they'll come up with a Web browser that never crashes.

The troops they're trying to enlist are the guests of honor tonight.

The evening began with a heady speech by Andreessen to the renegade programmers in the Gateway Conference Center at Cisco Systems in San Jose. The 400-plus programmers are enthusiasts of a free computer-operating system called Linux, which was created by Santa Clara resident Linus Torvalds in 1990. In the eight years since Linus wrote the "kernel"--or heart of the code--and released it for free on the Internet, Linux is the only noncommercial operating system gaining market share.

Linux is owned by no one but is constantly being tinkered with and improved by a worldwide clique of genius programmers who wouldn't be caught dead installing any of Microsoft's buggy offerings.

Check with your sysop: Chances are he's running it downstairs, or at least on his machine at home. Netscape posted the code for Communicator at a Web site that will serve as clearinghouse and "benevolent dictator" of the browser development effort, www.mozilla.com.

But will the Linux crowd pick up Netscape's code and run with it like they did with their beloved operating system? If nothing else, the collective disdain for Microsoft in the room ensures that the answer is yes.

After Andreessen's speech, the Linux group showed its appreciation by offering him a bottle of "Linux Pale Ale." Then the emcees began to throw door prizes to the crowd. It was like tossing a bouquet to 400 bridesmaids at a wedding. Showing surprising agility outside the cubicle, pasty-skinned code jockeys leaped for the shrink-wrapped boxes of Linux. But then the real party started.

"Do you care about gift certificates to Fry's?" teased the emcee in his best Bob Barker impression.

Oooh, the crowd sighed.

After the gifts were doled out, the giddy crowd boarded buses out front that Netscape had provided to ferry them to the code-release party. Marc Andreessen stood out front as his troops boarded the buses, pumping as many hands as he could without spilling his Linux Pale Ale. Some intrepid programmers followed Andreessen to his car, offering congratulations even as he was folding his 6-foot-plus body into his white V-12 Mercedes coupe.

On the bus, conversation turned to programming. Brian Chrisman, 26, a contract employee at Netscape, described his feelings for Microsoft dispassionately. "I might call it deep-seated hatred," he said.

Chrisman doesn't classify himself as a programmer. Those code jockeys with the patience and skill to work with two million lines of interconnected code are the novelists of the computer world. But still, Chrisman says, he thinks he'll tinker. "I've got a couple ideas of what they've screwed up," he said.

The first few weeks, the Netscape staff that's dedicated to managing the ad-hoc code development effort expects to get thousands of "patches," fixing the programmers' pet peeves.

Netscape VP Dave Rosthchild said the party was about "building a better product" and about "building a community." Understood is the quid pro quo. Netscape throws the party, and, Rosthchild said, the programmers "feel great, go home and write code."

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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