Can you feel the tension is the air? I sure can. It's the point when Mozilla starts collapsing. There's a growing number of people wanting to support and maintain Seamonkey, instead of Firefox and Thunderbird. After all, if you don't like the way things are going, why not branch off and do things the way you do like? It's the open source way! It also happens to be the best way to kill off a project.
Take a look at the list of Seamonkey supporters. Lots of QA people there. Lots of non-programmers. A small handful of people who would do much of the real development work, all of which already work on Gecko. But no management. Nobody with strong leadership, nobody with the time to coordinate development and testing, nobody with the project management skills needed. Oh, and I'll bet no user interface designers either.
Can you guess who will be expected to fill this void? I'll bet you can! Why, it's the overburdened Mozilla Foundation! Surely, the cost and efforts required to maintain two products that do the same thing would be negligible? After all, they've been doing it for a while, right? Sadly, they have. Of course, there were reasons for this since the brand spanking new Firefox wasn't ready until last November. But now there isn't.
One issue is that Firefox has been marketed as a separate product, "built from the ground up" as they say. Of course, it wasn't really built from the ground up, since much of the code, including the UI code, is actually the same. But it is heavily marketed that way. And guess what? A brand new name, some great logos and a concentrated effort on pushing the strengths of Firefox went a long way. Firefox is a great brand name which may one day become one of the best, like Apple, or Google or the Olsen Twins.
However, the new image has a downside. Firefox still has it's older brother, Seamonkey, still a separate product. So guess what? People still think it's a separate product and that it should still be updated. Well, what did you think would happen when you make two similar products? In this regard, it would have made more sense to change the name from Firefox to Mozilla 1.8 and promote it as the actual upgrade from Mozilla 1.7. Would people upgrade? Sure, it's the next version. Would some people complain about the UI changes? Sure, but they'd upgrade anyway, at least eventually. Why? Because the old version is no longer maintained.
Let's look at Netscape. They've released some browsers over the last ten years too. In the latter half of that time, they've been criticized because they created bizarre colourful UI, added strange bits of UI, stuck in all kinds of links to their web site, put stuff on the toolbars that many don't desire to be there, added millions of preference panels, and popped up all kinds of dialogs and ads. But if there's one thing Netscape has managed to do right, it's getting the name of the browser right. The first version was generally referred to as Netscape 1. Then came Netscape 2, then Netscape 3, Netscape 4, Netscape 6 and then Netscape 7. See a pattern? Apart from the glitch with version 5, things seem quite sensible. Netscape has recently announced a new version of their browser. Can you guess what it's called? Get this: Netscape 8. I'm even going to go out on a limb and predict the future: If Netscape releases another version of their browser, it will be called -- are you ready for it -- Netscape 9.
Easy to tell which version to upgrade to, right? There's only one to choose from. Your only choice is upgrade, or don't. And, guess what? The UI changed significantly between most versions, much more so that the UI changes between Mozilla 1.7 and Firefox. Yet people either upgraded or didn't. No one really expects Netscape or anyone to work on the long lost Netscape 5.
Now, some will be saying they like the integrated products rather than the separate browser and mail, much like how people complained to Netscape they didn't like integrated products. Oh well, you can't please everyone. But wouldn't it be easier to construct a Firefox/Thunderbird suite? I'm no build expert, but I'd imagine that would be easier and cheaper than maintaining two separate products.
What about all those missing features in Firefox that the suite has? Well, I looked, and, ironically, I couldn't find the missing features. People keep saying that Firefox has reduced features, but don't seem to ever mention what they are. OK, let's say there are some. Wouldn't it be easier to port these "missing features" to Firefox and then have a build option to include them?
Mozilla's overlay system is quite powerful. There's no need to require the user to install extensions for these things. Let's make a standard set and include them as part of a Firefox/Thunderbird suite package. This means too that the QA people should stop scaring people away by marking enhancement bugs invalid because they think the feature would be better as an extension. Sure some things might be, but I'll bet there are tons of great ideas out there that just need a better design and a bit of work and they would make great built-in features. After all, imagine what Firefox would be like if it didn't have tabbed browsing. I'd imagine someone would mark a request for it as invalid.
Those other little things you don't like about Firefox? Personal taste mostly. Don't like the Options command being on the Tools menu? Like the traditional location on the Edit menu instead? Yeah, whatever. Maybe we should put preferences in several dialogs on the Options menu for those that started out using Netscape 3. Really no reason to support two products for this kind of thing.
There's also the issues with the Firefox review and management process, which is, I suspect, the main reason the key developers on the Seamonkey supporters list are against Firefox. You see, Firefox has different reivew process than the rest of Mozilla code. Is that a good thing? Could be, but probably not. Considering one of the Firefox developer's thoughts on these kinds of things, that the Firefox module owner doesn't really do any reviews, and that the Firefox poster boy hasn't done much at all recently,
I'd imagine some changes are needed.
For one, I'm quite interested in the XUL toolkit, but it seems to be intertwined with the Firefox toolkit. Would it be wrong to suggest that there be an app toolkit maintained by the application front end developers, and an underlying XUL toolkit maintained by XUL developers? The app toolkit needs good UI designers. But the XUL toolkit needs good API designers. These are different people. Let's get people good at each task onto each piece.
We need to ensure that both front end UI and back end Gecko developers are communicating with each other. Sure, the front end UI is where all the action is. This is where your work gets noticed. You might even be famous for it. But if fame is what you're after, you've come to the wrong place. But if you are a front end UI developer, you've got to let the Gecko folks do their work. Each group has its place. If you do UI, you leave the other stuff alone. There are better experts for that. But if you don't do UI, leave UI work to those who can. And, no matter how much you think you can do good UI, you're almost guaranteed to be wrong.
Firefox is targeted at normal people as opposed to developers. If you know how to create a makefile, you aren't a normal person. But you can use Firefox too. I wonder who the Seamonkey supporters are trying to target? Can't be normal people - it doesn't make sense to create two products that do the same thing for the same set of people. Corporate users? They can upgrade to a Firefox/Thunderbird suite with extras for those mysterious "missing features" all built-in, or they can stick with Mozilla 1.7. Or are they targeting themselves, all programmers and hackers? Surely not. But I bet that's the answer. It's just, well, there just aren't enough of you to really get anywhere. In fact, it's why most free and open software doesn't go anywhere. It's target audience is too small. Unless, of course, you're writing a C compiler. But don't write a C compiler! We have lots already!
One thing is clear though is that the Mozilla Foundation does need to show some leadership in this. Make some decisons, let people know what those decisons are, sit down and figure out what needs to be fixed, and work out how to fix it. Some people will be disappointed. But if people can't accept that they aren't always going to get their way, they won't get very far.
To summarize, resurrecting Seamonkey is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Instead, let's not be a burden on the Mozilla Foundation and let's build on top of one product, a product we can all get behind. I recently upgraded to this, the new version of the browser from Mozilla, and that browser is Firefox.