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T A B L E__T A L K

Multiplayer gaming on the Net: Are you addicted? Share your tales in the Digital Culture area of Table Talk

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R E C E N T L Y

Apple and the snake
By Scott Rosenberg
Gil Amelio's peevish corporate memoir paints Steve Jobs as the devil
(04/10/98)

The Quicken and the deadbeat
By Andrew Leonard
How Intuit and Microsoft are saving us all from bankruptcy and crushing personal debt. Or not
(04/09/98)

Dear author
By Pamela LiCalzi O'Connell
What happens when a novelist puts his e-mail address on the book jacket?
(04/08/98)

Popcorn with your operating system?
By Scott Rosenberg
Microsoft beams its vision of computing's future into your local multiplex
(04/07/98)

Gene blues
By Jeffrey Obser
Why you should think twice before betting your life on genetic testing
(04/06/98)

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BROWSE THE
21ST ARCHIVES

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________________consider the source


What is it about Netscape's

newly liberated program code

that causes geeks to swoon?

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BY LAURA LEMAY

It's springtime, when the young geek's fancy turns to thoughts of love. Love of source code, that is. Lots of source code. Hundreds and thousands of lines of source code -- and the more complicated and difficult to understand, the better.

As of April 1, there's a new massive hunk of source code out there setting the hearts of geeks all over the world a-flutter. It's code with a cause. Code with a mission. Code with a silly green mascot.

I'm referring, of course, to the eagerly awaited public release of the source code for the Netscape Communicator browser. Free the code, the digerati had advised the company, and legions of programmers will beat a path to your door.

And so they did. The browser source, now called Mozilla after Netscape's dinosaur mascot, has spawned nearly unheard-of excitement in the geek community. You can take out the parts of the browser you don't use! You can add the features you've been wanting for years! You can fix the bugs! And, even better, you can help Netscape create a better browser and keep Microsoft from taking over the Internet. No wonder so many programmers are excited: There's only one thing a renegade programmer likes more than getting free source, and that's a chance to help fight the Microsoft Menace.

Are you geek enough to join the cult of the lizard? Even if you aren't a hard-core programmer with years and years of C++ under your belt, you may have become consumed by curiosity, and you may very well have fought your way to www.mozilla.org when the source release was announced, downloaded and even unpacked the archive. But where to go from there?

First of all, you should be aware that taking on free software is a hazardous occupation. The more people who work on a project, the more difficult it is to figure out what's going on in the code. I knew a programmer once who was bored one Sunday afternoon and decided to hack around for a while in the file-system source code for Linux, the operating system of choice in the open-source software universe. On Tuesday morning we broke down the door and found him crouched in the corner, whimpering. (Powerful antidepressants enabled him to return to some semblance of a normal life, and I'm told he's making a good living writing Visual Basic these days.)

Then there are the wizards of Perl, the scripting language preferred by free-software geeks; they're known for having a manic look in their eyes and a tendency to occasionally blather gibberish in polite company ("No, you idiot! You could do that so much more efficiently with a positive zero-width lookahead assertion!"). And it's said that there's a plaque up somewhere at MIT dedicated to the valiant programmers who have given their lives in pursuit of the GNU.

The Mozilla source runs 40 megabytes and 1 million-plus lines of intermingled C and C++ covering Windows and Mac and nearly every flavor of Unix, so diving into it is not an undertaking for those with weak hearts or slow computers. To build and use the free Mozilla source code for the free Mozilla browser, you will probably need to invest several thousand dollars in a new computer. However, if you've been throwing increasing amounts of cash at your computer dealer all along just to be able to run the latest actual Netscape browser, you may be just fine after all.

N E X T_P A G E .|. Into the code -- "deeper and deeper, harder and harder"








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