Xmosaic Development On A Roll

by Larry Ayers

Copyright (c) 1996

Published in Issue 10 of the Linux Gazette

Netscape binaries are more-or-less freely available for Linux, and the program works well, most of the time. As a Linux user I've become accustomed to a large potential for customization in software, right down to the source-code level. Netscape is available only as a large, opaque executable and the source is proprietary. I don't necessarily want a web-browser to fetch email and newspostings for me; I use other programs for those purposes but with Netscape those functions are unwanted baggage, loaded into memory every time the browser start up.

The recent beta versions of Xmosaic (the latest is 2.7b5) have been quicker-loading alternatives. Background colors and images are supported, but it just isn't as quick to load images and pages as Netscape.

Scott Powers, head of the Xmosaic development team at the University of Illinois, has for the past couple of months been leading a new Xmosaic project. The Xmosaic developers felt that the code upon which the version 2.7 and earlier browsers had been based needed a complete rewrite. Version 2.8 is now in public alpha testing. The project has been dubbed "Hyperion", as a sign that something totally new is in the works.

A mailing list for Hyperion has arisen lately. Perusing the messages from the developers one can feel the excitement in the air. These people are really motivated, and working extremely long hours as well. Most days a "snapshot" of that day's code level is available from their ftp site.

The first alpha releases were pretty rudimentary; there was no image support and many HTML files couldn't be loaded. I think that the source code was released at such an early level so that the developers could be sure that the core parsing routines, etc., could be successfully compiled on all targeted platforms. On September 10 the alpha version 2 was completed and released. Image support is now functional, though at this stage you must use specific versions of the JPEG and Xpm libraries. There's still a long way to go before Xmosaic 2.8 is actually very usable, but that's what the alpha tester's reports are helping to expedite.

What Can We Expect?

Scott Powers and the rest of the Hyperion team have an impressive list of planned features. One of the most exciting is a modularization of the source code. This means that if you wanted a speedy, basic browser the compile-time option would be available to not include, say, Java and sound support. A user could conceivably compile several versions, each with different capabilities.

Developers of web-browsers are faced with some difficult decisions. What standards to follow? How many of the "Netscape-isms" are now prevalent enough to be considered desirable? As an example, tables are now standard and to be expected in any new browser, as are forms. Frames are another matter; they are common on the web but many find them of limited value and they have yet to gain widespread acceptance. Xmosaic 2.8 will be HTML-3 compliant, and various sorts of multimedia support are being discussed. The alpha-testers have been making numerous suggestions, and their ideas are being taken seriously by the Xmosaic team.

Locations and Sources

If you'd like to check in from time to time and see what progress has been made, Xmosaic 2.8 is the home-page. The current alpha (and before too long, beta) version source code can be downloaded from the page. The ftp site might be faster, but at this early stage the source code is only about three hundred kilobytes. Information concerning the mailing list is also on the home page.

I encourage anyone who has a little time and the inclination to participate in the alpha testing. Every bug report contributes to a higher quality final release, and I'd hate to see Xmosaic 2.8 work really well only on Sparc or HPUX machines because not enough Linux users contributed reports!

Larry Ayres