Merry Pranksters

Inspired in part by Netscape's irrepressible vice president of technology, AOL, another fierce Microsoft competitor, embarked on a path of merry pranksterism. The company flew a blimp over the rollout of Windows 95 with the word "Welcome" emblazoned on its side. (This stunt had a shining precedent: Steve Jobs's condescending 1981 newspaper ads "welcoming" IBM to the microcomputer industry. Today, Apple and Netscape [now owned by AOL] each hold about 4 percent shares in their respective markets. As Marx noted, history does repeat itself.) All the while Netscape was indulging itself in displays of high spirits, the company was developing a reputation of being just as arrogant and hard to deal with as Microsoft.

Meanwhile, back in Redmond, Washington, the real Bill Gates, not the simulacrum from Netscape, paid Andreessen the very highest compliment of all. He took him seriously and dedicated all his time and energy to destroying Andreessen's company. The Netscape cofounder personally earned celebrity dartboard status at Microsoft, an honor that had previously been reserved for such luminaries as Philippe Kahn of

19 Rivlin, loc. cit.

20 Transcript from Nightly Business Report, WPBT, September 21, 2000.

21 Ibid.

Borland. By 1998 it was all over, as shrinking revenues and market share forced Netscape to trade high-tech heaven and independence for the low-tech haven of AOL and subordination.

It's impossible to overestimate the rank stupidity Andreessen demonstrated in his choice of public words and attitude vis-à-vis Microsoft. He'd committed the strategic equivalent of walking into the cage of a hungry tiger, turning around, taping a sirloin steak to his butt, and executing a slow bump and grind. It should have come as no surprise that when he left the cage he had no ass.

The harsh truth is that Netscape wasn't in a position to go head-to-head with Microsoft on anything in 1995. After its IPO, Netscape had $203 million in the bank; Microsoft had $10 billion. Netscape's core products, browsers, weren't hard to build, and Microsoft had the resources to build them. Nor, despite Andreessen's boasts, was Netscape a stronger development organization than Microsoft; in fact, the reverse was true. As already noted, by version 3.0 of IE, Microsoft was winning the product review battles in the press.

The release in 1997 of Netscape Communicator, designed to be an IE killer, drove the point home. Communicator quickly developed a widespread reputation for being slow, flaky, and overloaded with features such as an e-mail manager that never really worked. Netscape's server-based programs were also regarded as second-rate efforts, and many of the products the company claimed to have under development were vaporware. Java as a replacement for Windows proved to be a fantasy. Nor was Netscape smart enough to develop or acquire a robust web design tool à la FrontPage, one of the few places in the Internet bubble where real and sustainable profits could have been made.

Netscape, of course, faced an incredibly difficult challenge. Its initial strong success with Navigator and highly visible IPO guaranteed the company would attract Microsoft's attention. The intelligent thing for Netscape to have done during the period when Microsoft was considering what to do about the Internet would have been to immediately sew Marc Andreessen's lips shut and be as meek and unassuming as possible. Company executives should have publicly fainted when anyone suggested that Netscape technology would ever replace Windows as an applications platform. Netscape should have pledged eternal fealty to Windows, offered to partner with Microsoft (with the full understanding that Microsoft would eventually turn on them), and bought enough time for the company to cement its third-party relationships, make money, and build a more unassailable market position. In point of fact, Netscape did try to do this as the full weight of Microsoft's marketing panzers bore down on it, but after Andreessen's series of trenchant observations, Microsoft wasn't buying. What Netscape needed to survive the inevitable Microsoft onslaught was to buy as much time as possible, but the moments allotted by circumstances of its own making turned out to be not enough.

After the sellout to AOL, Marc Andreessen found his role in the industry had changed from young Internet über-man to personal geek assistant to Steve Case. After realizing his career at AOL was going to consist mainly of teaching members of the executive staff how to program their VCRs, he left to form a new Internet services and infrastructure company called Loudcloud. In view of Andreessen's previous performance at Netscape, it was perhaps an unfortunate choice of name. The company finally changed it to Opsware.



When the Internet exploded on the public consciousness in 1994, one of the reasons for the early excitement was that it seemed so fresh and new. This freshness was, as much else about the Internet proved to be, illusory. The Internet was a child of the 1960s finally all grown up, and it was about as new as LSD. And, like the notorious psychedelic elixir of the era of free love, flower power, and peace, those who partook of the Internet's dot-com drug in the late 1990s experienced an amazing and mind-bending experience that often detoured into a bad trip of bankruptcy, unemployment, and day-after flashbacks of disbelief.

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