Mozilla as an Application Virtual Machine

by David Boswell

There's been a lot of discussion inside the Mozilla community about the true nature of this project. The stock answer has been that Mozilla is the Open Source development project that began when Netscape released the source to its Communicator browser suite in 1998. Although that is what Mozilla started out as, there's growing evidence that it has turned into something else. In many ways Mozilla now resembles an Application Virtual Machine, a piece of code that allows applications to be written once and run on any operating system.

In his keynote address given at Computers, Freedom and Privacy in Toronto, Canada, on April 6, 2000, Tim O'Reilly talked about Open Source software and how the vision of Open Source projects tends to change over time. "Many of the greatest successes," he said, "come not from the vision of the original designer, but the uses to which newcomers put the original tool."

As an example, O'Reilly went on to cite that the scripting language Perl didn't blossom until the Web came along and developers found new ways to apply it. Along those same lines, we're seeing Mozilla break ground in new areas not previously expected, such as Zope (a web content management platform) and Eazel (a next-generation Linux desktop).

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Now that the preview release of Netscape 6 has been released, Mozilla concepts are reaching a whole new audience: people who have no experience with the previous two years of the project's development. As these people use Mozilla and the Mozilla-derived Netscape 6, they are bringing new perspectives and ideas about the project to the Web community. Many of these new users are not programmers, but are largely developers in the Web community with skills in HTML, JavaScript, and other Web technologies. Their views have stretched the original vision.

Building Applications in Mozilla

Web designers are discovering that their skills can now be used to customize Mozilla in such a way that they are able to create their own applications. One of the greatest innovations in Mozilla has been the creation of a cross-platform front end (called XPFE) that has turned the user interface of Mozilla into a Web page. The look and feel, as well as the functionality, of the interface is created entirely out of standards that are used to created Web pages -- JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, and XML. The XML component is embodied in a new language called XUL, the XML-based User Interface Language.

These tools have enabled new levels of customization including:

  • Skins: You can change the look and feel of a Mozilla application by creating new skins for it. Examples of these include the Aphrodite and Sullivan skins.
  • Incorporating JavaScript: Beyond its changeable appearance, new functionality can be added to Mozilla apps with JavaScript. (See the Crash Recovery project for an example of this.)

By combining both of these features, it's possible to change the way Mozilla looks and feels to such a degree that it can be turned into anything: a spreadsheet, a word processor, or even a different type of browser. And the kicker is that these applications can run on virtually any platform.

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