Co-founder of Netscape Communications Corp.
"Right now, today, with a little luck and brains and timing, any kid with a computer can do what Netscape has done. There are no barriers to entry anymore. Any kid can spark a revolution."-Marc Andreessen
To some, Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreessen is a cyberspace folk hero whose programming savvy made the vast resources of the Internet's World Wide Web available to anyone with a computer and modem. To others, he's little more than a computer hacker who rode to the top on the accomplishments of others. But no matter how his supporters and detractors may feel about him, Andreessen is indeed a visionary, whose dream of creating an easy-to-use Web browser revolutionized information technology, sparked the Internet boom of the 1990s, and laid the groundwork for one of the fastest-growing companies in U.S. history.
Born in rural Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1971, Andreessen seemed destined for a career in computers from the very beginning. Growing up in a town where football was king, Andreessen had little interest in sports. Instead, he turned his attention to computers. At age 8, while most of his friends were dreaming of scoring touchdowns for the nearby University of Illinois, Andreessen began teaching himself the BASIC programming language from a library book. By the time he'd reached the sixth grade, Andreessen had created a virtual calculator to do his math homework. By the seventh grade, he was writing his own games to play on his family's Commodore 64 computer.
Even though he seemed to be a natural computer prodigy, Andreessen had little interest in pursuing computer science as a career when he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. "Actually, I thought I'd go into electrical engineering," he admits in a January 1996 Nation's Business interview. "I knew that electrical engineers got paid on average the most in the engineering field. I ended up in computer science largely because it required the least amount of work."
For most of Andreessen's college career, he was pretty much the model slacker, doing only enough work for him to get by. ("I'm a big fan of work avoidance," he reveals in a Rolling Stone interview.) But that changed during his senior year in 1992, when Andreessen took a $6.85-per-hour programming job at the university's high-tech think tank, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). It was there that he first gained access to the Internet. At that time, the Web was a crude, text-based network accessible only through primitive interfaces. And although the Web contained literally volumes of useful information, "you were still expected to be a rocket scientist to actually access anything," Andreessen recalls.
Andreessen immediately saw a potential market for an easy-to-use browser, and in one sleepless weekend in 1993, he hacked out a crude prototype. He showed his prototype to his friend, gifted hacker Eric Bina, and in just six weeks, Andreessen, Bina and several other NCSA colleagues built it into a fully functioning browser they called Mosaic. They made the program available free of charge over the Internet, and within a year more than 2 million copies had been downloaded.
After graduation, Andreessen was offered a job with the small Silicon Valley firm Enterprise Integration Technologies. The story of Marc Andreessen may have ended right there and then, with him spending the rest of his life designing security software for Internet transactions. But fate had other plans for Andreessen.
A few miles down Highway 101 from where Andreessen worked, Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics (SGI), had recently left the company and was looking to start a new business venture. He asked one of the SGI engineers if he knew any bright up-and-comers in the high-tech industry. The engineer mentioned only one name-Marc Andreessen.
Wasting no time, Clark fired off an e-mail to Andreessen proposing a meeting. It was an offer Andreessen couldn't refuse. Clark's initial idea was to produce software for interactive television. He believed a browser would be the ideal interface for interactive TV subscribers. But Andreessen had other ideas, and after explaining the World Wide Web to him, quickly convinced Clark that they should focus on making browsers and servers for the Internet instead.
Using $4 million of Clark's money, the duo founded Mosaic Communications Corp. in April 1994. (Six months later, they changed the name to Netscape after the University of Illinois claimed it owned the rights to the name Mosaic.) Andreessen's first move was to recruit some of his former colleagues from NCSA, including his old friend and Mosaic co-developer, Eric Bina. By the year's end, Andreessen's "dream team" had created a more powerful, more polished version of Mosaic, which they dubbed Mozilla-short for Mosaic Killer. Fortunately, cooler marketing heads prevailed and the browser was officially named Netscape Navigator.
In a brilliant move to generate a user base, Navigator, like Mosaic, was launched free of charge on the Internet (although the company would eventually begin charging for the program, offering free 90-day trials instead). The browser immediately ruled the Net, claiming nearly 75 percent of the browser market.
With the success of Navigator, a few changes were needed at Netscape. From three employees in April 1994, the company had grown to 200 employees by the end of May 1995. To keep the start-up from growing out of control, Clark and Andreessen hired former FedEx senior executive Jim Barksdale to serve as CEO. With Andreessen as software guru, Clark providing the capital and Barksdale overseeing operations, Netscape expanded its product line to include high-end, high-priced software tools that companies could use to create and maintain their own Web sites, and they established virtual stores to conduct secure transactions over the Net.
By August 1995, with $16.6 million in sales but no profits, Netscape went public. Initially offered at $28 a share, Netscape's 5 million shares of stock immediately began trading at $71. When the stock market closed, Andreessen, then just 23, was worth $58 million. By December, the value of Andreessen's stock had risen to $174 million.
Netscape Navigator's success did not go unnoticed by software giant Microsoft. Since Navigator's debut in 1994, Microsoft had been working on its own browser, and in December 1995, released Microsoft Internet Explorer, sparking what would become known as "the browser wars."
Initially, Navigator maintained its lead in the browser market, but Microsoft eventually usurped Netscape's dominance by bundling Internet Explorer with Microsoft Windows, effectively putting the browser directly on millions of Windows desktops. As a result, Andreessen and Netscape radically changed their strategy. Rather than focusing solely on the Internet, Netscape turned its attention to Intranets, producing software to run within corporate networks.
Andreessen's role in the company also shifted. As Netscape lost its market dominance, Andreessen faded into the background, while Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale emerged as the new face and driving force of the company. Andreessen remained with Netscape as its "principal technology visionary," but Barksdale was clearly in charge. No longer able to compete with Microsoft, Barksdale brokered a deal with AOL in December 1998 to sell Netscape for $4.2 billion. Under the terms of the buyout, Andreessen was named chief technology officer (CTO) of AOL, but his actual role within the company and his part in day-to-day operations remained vague. In fact, Andreessen seemed to be little more than a figurehead.
Wanting to play a more active role in the evolution of the Internet, Andreessen joined the board of directors of Accompany Inc.-the first Internet-based buying network to offer products and services in real time-in July 1999. He eventually stepped down as AOL's CTO in September 1999 to spend more time working with Internet start-up companies.
While Marc Andreessen's future in the world of Internet technology may be cloudy, his legacy is firmly entrenched in the annals of online history. As Netscape's technological leader and visionary, he set the standard for Internet browsers, providing an easy-to-use "on-ramp" to the information superhighway for millions of computer users and dramatically changing the way businesses access and use the Internet-paving the way for e-business and e-commerce.
The Good, The Bad And The.Cleanly?
Marc Andreessen's phenomenal success with Netscape Communications Corp. has generated quite a bit of press.some good, some bad. Here's what a few of his supporters and detractors have had to say about him.
- "Marc's sort of a folk icon among Gen Xers and other young people turned on by the Web. It doesn't hurt that he's made a fortune. He mixes youthful idealism with the capitalism that's in now."-Jerry Michalski, editor, Release 1.0
- "Marc is no fun to work with. He tries very hard to make sure anything he touches he gets credit for."-Joseph Hardin, former National Center for Supercomputing Applications colleague
- "He has the curiosity that you see in brilliant people. When Marc doesn't know about something he thinks he needs to understand, he gets a book and talks to people and learns. The guy has a knowledge base that's just incredible."-Bill Gurely, Internet analyst, Deutshe Morgan Grenfell
- "[Andreessen's] true genius was taking credit for the work of others; his brilliant insight, that he could profit mightily from the ideas and achievements of a number of naive idealists in his academic field." -Alan Deutschman, Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine
- "He's not a typical computer nerd. He's well-dressed and bathes a lot."-Elizabeth Horn, Marc Andreessen's fiancee
Truth Be Told
It is a widely held belief that Marc Andreessen's Mosaic was the first Web browser. It was not. By the time Andreessen began working on Mosaic in November 1992, there were already several Web browsers on the market designed for nontechies. The initial version of Mosaic (and later, Navigator) drew on the innovations of earlier browsers, which already included many features aimed at making the Web easier to navigate, such as icon buttons (back, forward, home, for example), bookmarks (for keeping track of favorite Web sites) and a variety of fonts and typefaces.
What made Mosaic unique was that it overcame two problems that had plagued earlier Web browsers. First, Mosaic was easy to get up and running. Second, it was the first browser that could automatically display graphics along with text. It was the proliferation of pictures that transformed the Web from the insular domain of scientists and hackers to a cultural phenomenon that captured the attention of the masses and created a multimillion-dollar consumer Internet industry.