A few weeks after Windows 95 was launched there was a big buzz on Wall Street.  It was for a company called Netscape.  At that point in time Netscape made a browser (this word browser was new to the masses) called Navigator.  I had played a little with Navigator at work.  It was pretty cool, this being just to randomly search for things on the web and find interesting stuff. When you launched the browser it took you right to the Netscape homepage and away you went on the new super highway — the internet.  I remember writing at the time, “Microsoft has just launched its most successful product and 3 weeks later the landscape has changed with the IPO of Netscape Communications”.

Upon many years of reflection I think it is safe to say that despite the eventual downfall of Netscape, their place in history is secure.  Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the web, but Marc Andreeson brought it to the masses. There is a lot to talk about here, so let’s begin.

Lets first talk about the wiz kid Marc Andreeson.  He was the type of character people like Billg feared. Bill was always saying he worried about competing against the next Microsoft, a bunch of young and hungry kids.  Marc was in his early 20’s and seemed to fit the mold.  The industry immediately touted him the new Bill Gates.   When Netscape launched however Marc was not the President or CEO, he was the CTO.  The CEO was a former FedEx exec named James Barksdale.  I will come back to him later.  I think ceding that control by Marc was a fundamental mistake.  But he was young.  Technology companies need to be led by technical people.  My former company Microsoft no longer believes this as they value business leadership more, Ballmer is a big fan of Jack Welch.   Put a great technical leader in front of technical people they will follow them, but I digress yet again.  Marc was the technical leader at Netscape and after the IPO the industry seemed to hang in the balance, waiting for Marc to utter words that would lead the industry to the future.  After all he was the new Billg.  When he finally spoke we all waited and he said, “Netscape is going to go after corporate email”.  Fighting words for Microsoft and IBM, but not exactly visionary.  Ok, frankly it was stupid.  At the time IBM and Microsoft had combined cash reserves of $22 billion.   Not to mention they had sales forces with relationships already out their selling IBM Notes and Microsoft Exchange.  However it the short run a lot of companies put their email decisions on hold waiting for Netscape’s email offering. I heard this from a number of Microsoft sales reps at the time. Netscape was still young and small and did not have much of a sales force in place. It was probably a bit unfair to put all that weight on Marc’s shoulder.  Unlike Microsoft which took a number of years to become a recognized name, Netscape was more or less an overnight sensation.  In the end I think Marc has been a one hit wonder, but it was a mega hit and I am sure he is not on welfare.  The expectations were very high and I don’t think, like Bill, Marc had a chance to grow into the position.  His learning curve was very steep. 

I made a note of the Netscape CEO James Barksdale, who became a rather visible figure during the DOJ trial.  I am not a big fan of technology companies in general being run by business people.  To be clear companies like IBM I don’t consider technology companies, their primary driver is services.  But other companies like VM Ware, Oracle, Google etc..need technical leaders to rally the troops and get them excited about the future..  Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin went out and got Novell CEO Eric Schmidt (former exec at Sun Microsystems and a very technically bright guy).  Eric had strong credentials.  In the case of Netscape, with Jim Barksdale they were getting a business savvy guy, but he was not at all very technical, nor could he lay out the strategic future for Netscape.  Marc Andreeson and others were needed to do this. If you want to go back in history look what happened to Apple when Pepsi exec John Sculley was brought on board.  In the end Jim spent all his time complaining about Microsoft’s unfair business practices and forging alliances with other Silicon Valley companies to bring the case to the DOJ.  That will be his primary legacy, he motivated a bunch of lawyers to brink a landmark case against a legendary company.  It will be remembered, but it’s not very technical.

I noted earlier when you launched the Netscape browser if took you to Netscape’s home page.  During that time Netscape would do press releases saying 10 million people had visited the website.  In terms of making money though they were trying to sell the software, like Microsoft sells software in a box.  Two quick points to make here:

  1. Competing with Microsoft in the packaged software business was literally going into the Lions den, in short suicide.
  2. What if they had given the software away and focused on search and all those users going to their home page…just a thought

The quote that Marc Andreeson will be best remembered for is “Make the browser where people will go to work and reduce Windows to a set of buggy device drivers”.  It rankled everyone from the top to the bottom at Microsoft, but here is where I may rankle people at Microsoft, in time that will be true.  If you look across the landscape of what is happening in computing more and more is focused on the web, virtualization, and mobility, and less is being asked of the operating system.  As  I have said and a colleague at Microsoft said after loading Windows 7 “I just don’t know how excited I get about a OS upgrade anymore”.  Today over 70% of all development done is web-based development.  Could anyone today start a business without a web presence? In time Marc’s quote will be right on, it was just ahead of its time. 

As for Netscape, well during the DOJ trial they sold and were purchased by AOL.  In the end it was a perfect mess.

Finally, like it or not we owe Netscape a big thank you.  They launched the internet age.  Internet time began back when they did their IPO  in the fall of 1995.  That clock will race forward faster than anyone can imagine.  There will be benefits.  There will be consequences.  But we cannot reset the clock we just have to drive forward or maybe the internet will drive us?

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