A Tale of Two, Three, … N Rewrites

In an earlier post about the various rewrites Netscape’s browser underwent I quoted both Jamie Zawinski and Brendan Eich about their experience with the programmers from companies acquired by Netscape coming in and rewriting sections of browser code. I quoted Eich saying:

There was an imperative from Netscape to make the acquisition that waved the Design Patterns book around [i.e. Collabra] feel like they were winners by using their new rendering engine, which was like My First Object-Oriented Rendering Engine.

Eich soon wrote me to clarify and I’ve been meaning to post something about it for quite some time. Here’s what he said:

I wasn’t referring to Collabra, rather to Digital Styles. Different Netscape startup-acquisition lottery winner, same sad rewrite story, but with the rendering engine the rewrite target instead of the mail/news (“groupware”) code the target this time.

You quoted jwz saying: “They [Collaborators] didn’t start from scratch with a blank disk but they eventually replaced every line of code.” The “every line of code” is about the mail/news code only, not the browser front ends, and specifically not the layout (rendering) engine. The Collaborators weren’t that good, they had no one who could hack a web-compatible replacement layout engine or a JavaScript engine. They were Windows Professional ™ C++ programmers, mostly.

Netscape 4 was not a total rewrite. (No Netscape release, not even Netscape 6, was, although 6 and the Mozilla code it was based on came closest by far.) I rewrote my first JS engine (“Mocha”) for it, but reused a lot of code with name changes (big change: a real GC instead of ref-counting and arenas). Eric Bina’s layout engine remained pretty much as it was in Netscape 3. Lou Montulli’s hacked over netlib, ditto. More hands on board at Netscape meant more incremental evolution, but the original Netscape 1 or 2 era browser and rendering code was still there.

Feel free to quote me, hope this helps.

From there Eich and Zawinski had a short back and forth that I got cc’d on about what exactly got rewritten by whom. Unfortunately the final answer, which could be pulled from the old CVS repository may be lost to history – Eich tried to get AOL to release the old CVS repsitory in 2003 but didn’t get anywhere with it, in part because, as he said in one of his emails, “I’m not sure what had become of the old CVS server at that point.”

Anyway a bit of ancient history that I should have posted about far sooner.

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