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  • Netscape Boy Wonder Looks
    Beyond The Basic Web Browser

    Rajiv Chandrasekaran
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 25, 1997; Page C01

    Get him going and Marc Andreessen can rattle on at 200 megahertz about his vision of the future. The 25-year-old who co-founded Internet software giant Netscape Communications Corp. has a slew of opinions about how we're going to be browsing the World Wide Web, using e-mail, walking around with hand-held computers.

    But ask him what he thinks he'll be doing at 40 and the mental microprocessor screeches to punch-card speed.

    "Uh, that's hard to say," he finally stammers. Then, after another pause: "In the technology industry, that's clearly over the hill."

    That's not what keeps him up at night these days, though. The hyperkinetic, boyish Andreessen, who dropped by Washington last week to schmooze with folks on Capitol Hill and speak at a computer networking conference in Northern Virginia, is thinking about life in dog years -- doing in one year what others do in seven.

    Marc Andreessen, senior VP of technology at Netscape Communications. (Dan Murano)
    Faced with intense competition from the likes of Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp., he and his Netscape confederates are researching, developing and releasing products -- namely popular software to browse and serve up information on the Web -- at warp speed.

    It's a pace that Andreessen, as senior vice president for technology, helped instill at the Mountain View, Calif., company. Take, for example, Netscape's browser software, the program people see on their screens as they travel the World Wide Web. One version is for sale. Another, not-quite-perfected version is being given away in the hope that users will find problems and tell the company about them. A third, more advanced version is being assembled by legions of twentysomething programmers. And elements of yet another version are percolating in Andreessen's brain.

    "One of the advantages of moving quickly is if you do something wrong you can change it," he told a group of Washington Post editors and reporters last week. "What technologies tend to do is they tend to make a lot of mistakes . . . but then we go back and aggressively attack those mistakes -- and fix them. And you usually recover pretty quickly."

    If anybody's setting an example for speed, it's Andreessen. The nerdy kid who once spent 20-hour days in the University of Illinois computer lab is touring the country these days, meeting with customers in turbocharged sessions in which he imparts two hours' worth of thoughts in half that time. He's traded in his trademark khaki shorts for a crisply pressed shirt and tie -- and even a sport coat.

    It's come with a price: less time to think deep thoughts.

    At an age when most people are looking forward to their first cubicle and nameplate, he's already set up a home office to "get real work done." But even there, the incessant flood of e-mails and phone calls keeps him from getting the solitude he needs.

    "If I want to get work done, that's usually about 3 in the morning," he moans.

    The only downside, according to Andreessen, is the toll on the people that work for him. "The speed that things are moving is a problem mostly just in terms of stress and in terms of, you know, burnout, people being able to keep up," he said. "At the same time, that's a big part of the opportunity."

    He is a large man whose manner is congenial, but every now and then he can dissolve into a giggle and toss off a biting putdown. Asked about the problems at America Online, he counters with a question of his own: "If you can't make money with 8 million customers, how many customers do you need?" The point, he said, is that the future is the Web, not commercial services, such as AOL, that use "proprietary technology."

    Andreessen practices what he preaches. He claims to get all his news off the Web. He buys books from Amazon.com, a massive online bookstore. He uses the MovieLink Web site to check theater times, and he reads Roger Ebert's reviews on the Chicago Sun-Times site. "A lot of things you want to do as part of daily life can now be done over the Internet," he said.

    He doesn't always talk in bits and bytes. His conversation is peppered with phrases like "share value" and "total cost of ownership."

    But now and again he lapses into geek-speak, yammering on about UIs (user interfaces), NCs (network computers) and bandwidth (the data-carrying capacity of a network). With Netscape products providing standardized UIs, and the emerging popularity of low-cost NCs and increasing bandwidth, "the size and scope and scale of networks 10 years from now is going to be massive," he gushes.

    Andreessen was in Washington with Jim Barksdale, the company's legendary chief executive (he was Federal Express Corp.'s chief operating officer and then the president of McCaw Cellular when it was purchased by AT&T Corp. for $11.5 billion in 1995). Among other things, Barksdale came to pitch the company's products to the Defense Department.

    One of these days, though, Andreessen thinks the Washington region could be more than just a place to sell software. He said the area is on the company's "short list" -- along with Seattle, Austin, North Carolina and Portland, Ore. -- as a place to open its first software development facility outside the Silicon Valley.

    Compared with Boston's Route 128 corridor, long the eastern rival to Northern California's tech nexus, he said the Washington region now "seems to be in the right place in terms of having a very network-oriented approach. . . . In a sense, the mantle of [technology] leadership on the East Coast is being passed from the Boston area to the D.C. area."

    At Netscape, the leadership issue comes up in two major ways. One, the company must preserve its dwindling lead in Web-browsing software. Netscape's Navigator program commands about 70 percent of the market, according to several recent industry studies, but rival Microsoft has been driving that slowly down with its Internet Explorer.

    Future versions of Microsoft's popular Windows operating system will allow users to access the Web directly from their computer "desktop," making a separate Web browser unnecessary.

    But Netscape now sees its future in providing so-called "mission critical" software for large companies to manage their e-mail systems and set up intranets -- internal networks based on Internet standards. But Wall Street analysts question whether Corporate America is going to put up with Netscape's cutting-edge, but sometimes faulty, software.

    Those issues, first raised a few months ago by a few influential industry watchers, have helped push the company's stock down to some its lowest-ever levels. Yesterday, its shares closed at $29.31 1/4, down 43 3/4 cents, on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

    Andreessen said he's confident Netscape will cut it in the new market for intranet-type software, valued at about $10 billion between now and 2000. "We're just going to be, you know, very upfront in terms of saying these are the products that are now tested . . . and there's going to be new products coming out after that that are going to be a lot more aggressively oriented," he said. "We need to work hands-on with customers to help them understand that."

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