Goodbye, Internet poster boy

Marc Andreessen steps down from his CTO job at America Online. Is there anything left of Netscape?

Published September 10, 1999 11:00AM (EDT)

For a long time now, I've been tired of reading and writing eulogies for Netscape, so I am rather glad that this is likely to be the last.

On Friday morning, America Online announced that Marc Andreessen -- the pudgy-faced programmer who helped found Netscape and deserves much (and took much more) credit for jump-starting the Internet age -- would step down as its chief technology officer, staying on as a "part-time strategic advisor." Andreessen had held the CTO job since March, when AOL sealed its deal to buy Netscape. Andreessen, though long lauded by the media for his role as technology wunderkind and Internet poster boy, was not by anyone's definition a big-time corporate operator. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, he had one very good idea -- creating a graphical Web browser, in which users could navigate the still new World Wide Web by clicking on pictures. With the help of tech Svengali Jim Clark, that idea turned into Netscape Navigator, the first commercial Web browser -- and set off the Internet frenzy. Increasingly, Andreessen became the public face of the company and a proxy for all the Web's builders, even as his role diminished in developing Netscape's programs.

When America Online bought Netscape, there was talk in the technology world that AOL did it to kill off a potential competitor (particularly Netcenter) -- that it wanted to buy the struggling company to make sure it would not rise again. Nonetheless, it was somehow comforting to know that, whatever AOL did to Netscape, at least some memory of Netscape's glory would survive in the figure of Andreessen. Netscape, after all, was much admired challenger to Microsoft, and a company that had engendered among techies the evangelizing fervor of the early Apple, and it seemed sad to think that it would simply disappear.

In fact, that's exactly what has happened. For all practical purposes, Netscape's browser, which was to the Net what the Model T was to the highways of the early part of this century, is dead. Every month, more and more Web surfers switch to Microsoft; Netscape's market share hovers at 33 percent, down from 60 percent or more a couple of years ago. America Online hasn't even switched its own users to Netscape from Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser -- essentially the equivalent of McDonald's buying Pepsi and yet still serving Coke. Meanwhile, Netscape's high profile, Mississippi-bred CEO, Jim Barksdale, is in virtual retirement. Jamie Zawinski, the purple-haired engineer who was Netscape's vocal evangelist, resigned in disgust several months ago., the group of Netscape engineers who set out to develop a powerful new open-source version of the Netscape browser is moribund -- or, from AOL's point of view, worse than moribund, because instead of sticking to browsers, is working on a messaging application that might compete with AOL's own. All that's left is, Netscape's struggling Web portal (whose audience has been dropping off, albeit slowly) and a business software group that is effectively managed for America Online by Sun Microsystems.

In the end, it's not clear who took whom for a ride. Did America Online buy Netscape just to let it humiliatingly fade from view? Or did Andreessen, Barksdale and Clark sell America Online a $4 billion pile of obsolescent motherboards and aging code? Perhaps the answer is a little of both. Andreessen has been criticized for hyping his own role in the creation of the Net, and overstating his own technical genius. But when it came to sizing up the opportunity for quick gain, Andreessen from the start has been a master. Move fast, get big, take the money and run was Netscape's strategy, and it is hard to begrudge Andreessen his gains, because there are many others who have made even more, and never come up with anything as cool or important as Netscape in its early days.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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