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Q&A: Expert outlines Mozilla benefits, part 1

When is a browser more than a browser? When it's the Mozilla platform, a free, open source browser and set of applications, said programmer Nigel McFarlane, author of the recently published book Rapid Application Development with Mozilla, from Prentice Hall PTR. Mozilla's tools for GUI-based business functions fill a client infrastructure gap that's troubled corporate Linux shops, McFarlane said. In part one of this two-part interview, he explains why and how the Mozilla platform can help IT shops better handle quick hacks and desktop business process tasks, as well as Windows-to-Linux migrations and interoperability. In part two, he describes Mozilla tools and tips for using them and explains how IT pros can test the Mozilla waters.

Why should corporate IT professionals be interested in Mozilla?
Mozilla is a very large and flexible product that represents a new sort of client infrastructure for IT professionals. It can be packaged and used in a number of different ways for a number of different end purposes. Within enterprise Linux, it fills a massive hole in the tool sets available for GUI-based business functions. This is the main promise of Mozilla for Linux, in my view. What are the common misconceptions about Mozilla?
To most people, Mozilla is a Web browser. The Mozilla name, however, applies to both end-user products and to a platform technology underneath those products. There are many products and tools that can claim Mozilla inside, like ActiveState's Komodo IDE. Browsers and e-mailers just happen to be highly visible examples.

Another misconception is that Mozilla is little. The installed final products are small and efficient, but the technology that Mozilla is built on is very ambitious and complex. It's a very, very large open source project with very aggressive portability and functionality goals. It's as complex and flexible underneath as a SQL database server, the Linux kernel or J2EE. Could you give a couple of examples of how large enterprises benefit from using Mozilla?
The core use of Mozilla technology is at the user interface. The simplest use is just to deploy existing Mozilla products, which now run on all desktops identically.

[There are] more complex uses of Mozilla. They involve better business process execution on the desktop. Such activities usually require database or content management applications. Support systems, order entry and change tracking are everyday examples. For instance, it's become obvious that LAMP applications (those built with Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Perl) can avoid delivering HTML interfaces to the user.

HTML interfaces are a bit clunky and have lots of problems. Mozilla's XUL language provides a way to deliver watertight, professional interfaces, just like traditional GUIs. That removes all of the mess associated with Web page navigation, layout and user performance. It brings back some of the efficiencies still inherent in older character-based systems.

This advance does not require destruction of existing HTML-based applications or of the existing server infrastructure. It can be done as an enhancement. LAMP becomes LAMPX, with X [representing] XUL. This is possible because Mozilla doesn't demand a specific architecture. The Mozilla platform and applications can be sliced a number of ways so that the balance between client and server is determined by people, not dictated by the technology. How can Mozilla benefit an IT shop that's migrating from Windows to Linux?
Moving e-mail and intranet Web browsers to Mozilla is a simple bridging step that prepares ordinary desktop users for a future transition from Windows to Linux.

As I noted earlier, Mozilla is totally cross-platform. You can move your servers to Linux and keep your old clients, and then move your client applications to Mozilla. We're at the stage now where desktops look much alike (or can be made to look much alike). Mozilla applications running with the Modern theme are near identical across Windows, Linux, Macintosh and elsewhere. As long as there's still a Start menu when you swap the operating system underneath, your users will hardly notice the change.

If you develop your own Mozilla applications, then there's little to do, in migration terms. Those applications run the same everywhere; just copy the files, or point the new desktop to the existing server. How about IT shops that run both Windows and Linux?
Well, again you have portability. For Web or Internet-enabled uses, Mozilla clients run against any standards-compliant server.

One frustration with Linux has been the lack of a well-established GUI tool for throwing together quick hacks. Windows IT people love the convenience of Visual Basic for simple GUI tasks. Linux has Tcl/Tk, but now we have Mozilla as well. Tcl/Tk is good, but Mozilla is better integrated with the desktop and it uses a more accessible language: JavaScript. You can build simple control panels in Mozilla using existing Web skills.

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