Nothing But Net

Here's what happens when you're the hottest, coolest, youngest, richest, biggest and hungriest techno-weenie in Silicon Valley. For one thing, the boss wishes you'd stop wearing those khaki shorts to the bigwig computer conferences. After all, even the other overlords of the digital empire put on socks. Then there's your girlfriend, Elizabeth, who wants six months' worth of PC Magazine, milk cartons and Oreo wrappers cleaned out of the Mustang. Worst, you can't even eat in peace anymore at your favorite Palo Alto bistro. Stars, Higashi West--they're for the literati and digerati. You prefer a cardioburger and civilization's best malt at the Peninsula Creamery. But now you're too recognizable. At 6 feet 4, in those shorts, with that red rod out front, with that ursine mug that launched a dozen glossy covers, what would you expect? "It's too bad," Elizabeth says. "Whenever I needed, I could always reach him there."

In a few short months, life has gotten more complicated for Marc Andreessen--and we haven't even mentioned the problem of what to do with that first $100 million. Andreessen is the 24-year-old uber-super-wunder whiz kid of cyberspace. His programming savvy has turned the Internet's World Wide Web into an electronic playground that is revolutionizing information technology and the ever-growing global network of computers. The software company Andreessen co-founded last year, Netscape Communications, is already a brand-name marvel its pulsating teal trademark--an "N" looming against the planet--is ubiquitous, appearing whenever Netscape software is used to cruise the Web.

It may not be cyber Big Brother, but it's your continuous driving buddy on the Information Superhighway. Netscape estimates its Web site is "hit," or visited, 19 million times a day. By dominating the software market for navigating the Web, and by designing tools for building sites on the Web's virtual real estate, Netscape hopes to become the Microsoft of the Internet, WHY BILLGATES WANTS TO BE THE NEXT MARC ANDREESSEN, proclaims Wired magazine.

The Netscape phenomenon reaches far beyond the technological mother lode of Silicon Valley. On Wall Street, Netscape has produced an unprecedented stock frenzy--a gold rush not seen about northern California since Sutter's Mill. On Aug. 9, 1995, the public got its first chance to buy stock in the company. Offering price: $28. Within minutes, it rocketed to $74 3/4. The "N" logo, soaring to the stratosphere, could just as well have been Netscape's market value. Mom-and-Pop investors, who didn't know the difference between a megabyte and an overbite, showed up at Netscape's office hoping to buy in. At Charles Schwab, the 800 number got a new recording: "Press 1 if you're calling about Netscape." By nightfall, the pricesimmered down to $58, which still fixed the company's worth at more than $2 billion. Andreessen's stake was $58 million, though all on cyberpaper, since SEC laws prevented him from touching it. Up the peninsula, San Franciscans were mourning the death of a Grateful Dead rock star. Yet around the happy valley that day the entrepreneurs were telling this joke. Q: What were Jerry Garcia's last words before his heart at-tack? A: "Netscape opened at what?"

Since Netscape's debut, financial analysts have been of different minds. Goldman, Sachs recently gave the stock a Buy recommendation--only days after saying the opposite for Microsoft, an irony not lost on the market. But others call Netscape a tulip craze. So far, the public has smelled only roses. The stock price hit $100 by Thanksgiving and headed for lunar orbit at $.174 hy early December--not bad for a company that has yet to show a dime of profit. "This kind of phenomenon is like a great, big, loopy comet that shows up only once in a while," says futurist Paul Saffo. "The impact of Netscape is as much emotional as financial."

This is the story of where that comet came from.

It started not with a cosmic plan, but with a pastry. Back in 1992, Andreessen was attending the University of Illinois, working part time at the school's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). For $6.85 an hour, he wrote Unix code for high-end computers. At that point, the Internet contained little more than plain text accessible only to digital cognoscenti. Andreessen envisioned a more populist universe, where any cyberschlub could plug into the Net, especially its World Wide Web of shared information.

Andreessen, then 21, had programming in his genes. But his sensibilities came from a larger matrix. He reads several daily newspapers, browses dozens of magazines, watches CNN on his computer and writes hundreds of electronic messages--and has even been spotted using the phone. He can assimilate vast amounts of information from both the technical and the pop-culture bandwidths, which makes it easier to understand how he could seethe marriage of the Internet to mass society. Three Christmases ago at Aspen, Colo., Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, was riffing about the future with his friend John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist. "Someday," he prophesied; "you'll be backing an 18-year-old who's writing software that will change the world." Joy was off by five years.

One evening that same December, at the Espresso Royale Caffe in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Andreessen decided to create his own universe on the Internet. He knew about the Web's potential for simple travel through the Net, The idea should have been obvious to others. But the academic egg-heads of cyberspace didn't think beyond their own needs. Andreessen's notion was one of those epiphanies little regarded as such at the time by the discoverer. Yet ultimately it would be seen as the birth moment of an era. Andreessen turned to his NCSA soulmate, Eric Bina, for help.

The thirtyish Bina was more of a programming wizard than his friend. While Andreessen mused about a new order and how to market it, Bina was content to harness the Internet for mundane matters like research. But the project sounded like fun--and it sure beat the work they were supposed to be doing. For three months, Andreessen and Bina were virtually inseparable. Working 18 hours a day, they argued not only about code, but also about presidential politics, music and junk food. Andreessen lived on quarts of milk and Pepperidge Farm Nantucket; Bina preferred Mountain Dew and Skittles.

As it turned out, executing Andreessen's idea wasn't hard. The program amounted to just 9,000 lines of code--compared, say, with Windows 95's 8 million. Andreessen and Bina called it Mosaic--the first, easy-to-use graphical overlay for the Web. Now all you had to do to "browse" the inter-linked text, pictures and sounds online was to "point and click" a mouse. Mosaic did for the Internet what Vatican II did for Roman Catholics. It put Unix into the vernacular.

From the moment they made it available on the Net for others to download freely, Mosaic was a sensation. It wasn't fast, stable or secure--but it was way cool, giving dimension and vitality to a flat digital desert. By spring, other NCSA engineers were recruited to write Mosaic for mass application on Windows and Macintosh machines. Jon Mittelhauser, Chris Wilson and Aleksandar (Mac Daddy) Totic--all in their 20s-had those versions online by November 1993. Word of mouse traveled fast. "The first day we put it up," Mittelhauser recalls, "the server died." Soon, a million people had Mosaic.

A month later Andreessen graduated from the University of Illinois. NCSA asked him to stay on--as long as he left the Mosaic team, which had grown to several dozen members. There clearly was a feeling at NCSA that "centralized management" was needed. Such corporate-speak, of course, was a sure-fire way to turn off the programmers. "There used to be five of us with Domino's and Coke at 2 in the morning," says Mittelhauser. "Now we had big meetings. We practiced passive resistance--we ignored them."

At 22, Andreessen felt burned and burned out. He headed to the Valley of Silicon Dreams, taking a programming job at a small company that did security for electronic commerce. While hardly offering the challenge of Mosaic, it gave him a paycheck in California--and it was only a few miles from the Creamexy. "I had some idea I wanted to be part of a new company," Andreessen remembers, "but I didn't even know what a V.C. [venture capitalist] was."

Just down Highway 101, another burnout was plottinghis next move. Jim Clark, fabled founder of Silicon Graphics (SGI)--the pioneer in 8-D graphics--was frustrated and wanted out. Like other entrepreneurs, he wanted a new rocket to fide. In late January 1994, he asked one of his engineers, Bill Foss, about who was hot in high tech. "I believe in athletes," Clark says, "not first basemen." Foss mentioned only one name.

"How do I reach this Andreessen?" Clark. asked. Eoss downloaded Mosaic and located Andreessen's e-mail address. "You'll find him here:"

Clark, then 49, wasn't known for being contemplative. He'd never heard of Mosaic, but immediately he sat down at the keyboard. "You may not know me, but I'm the founder of Silicon Graphics," he typed. "I've resigned and intend to form a new company. Would you be interested in getting together to talk?"

"Sure," Andreessen replied.

That began a series of meetings--"group gropes," Clark called them--over the next eight weeks. Clark initially wanted to do something with games and interactive TV--sort of an online Nintendo. Andreessen wasn't keen on that, and in any event Clark recognized that corporate alliances they'd need presented conflicts with SGI. Instead, they got to talking about Mosaic:

"You know, Jim," said Andreessen, "some people think the Information Highway's already arrived. It's called the Internet." Andreessen brought up his friends back in Illinois who were interviewing for jobs and about to leave NCSA.

"You think of something to do," Clark told Andreessen, "and I'll fund it."

"We can always create a Mosaic-killer--do the program right."

"God knows how we'll make money, but OK," Clark said. "Let's get the other guys." Thus was born Mozilla, the virtual mascot who now appears on Netscape pages.

Andreessen suggested they bring his friends out to the coast to talk. Clark wondered, though, if there wasn't more urgency, given Mosaic's proliferation. The following week, Clark and Andreessen flew East.

The remaining Mosaic men missed their leader. "We were just the plumbers," Mittelhauser says now. "To build a great house, you need a great architect. Marc showed us where all the bathrooms went." Mittelhauser and the others had stayed in touchwith Andreessen. But they were nonetheless surprised in mid-April when Andreessen e-mailed, "Something is going down here-be prepared to leave."

Late on a Tuesday, Clark and Andrees-sen arrived during a miserable winter storm. The next day, at the University. Inn, Clark met individually with Bina, Mittelhauser and Totic, along with three others who hadn't worked on the original code. Rob MeCool had built a Mosaic server for NCSA and Chris Houck worked on various projects. Arid then there was Lou Montulli, a student at the University of Kansas who authored Lynx, a text-based browser. Andreessen wanted him in. (Montulli is now a Web folk hero for other reasons. He's keeper of the Amazing Fish Cam, eyberspace's favorite aquarium. Its popularity is no fluke--it gets roughly 40,000 hits a day.) .

Clark knew their credentials were great. What he wanted from the sit-downs was a sense of Andreessen. "Each of them had a different story,"' Clark recalls. "But each began with Marc. That was enough for me."

All six got offers. Clark discussed salaries, benefits and that small matter of stock options--about 1 percent apiece of the new company. Clark told them that could amount to a lot of Skittles someday. He was fight. The Mosaic men, who don't get the headlines, are now worth millions. "We've all revisited that meeting with Jim," says Montulli. "I used to worry how I'd buy a PC every five years. But money isn't what motivated us."

Montulli and the others accepted on the spot. To celebrate, they headed to Gully's pool bar, where Andreessen brought over formal offer letters. Clark, still in his room, had typed one up on his laptop and faxed it six times to the hotel lobby. "We laughed and laughed at ourselves--that we were going to California," Mittelhauser says. Within weeks, they had packed their bags and bits and were gone--except for Bina, who would cybercommute from Illinois because his wife was a tenured professor there.

After the party, Clark and Andreessen headed home to rev up the company, into which Clark put $4 million of his own money. They called it Mosaic Communications at first, but changed the name to Netscape after legal posturing by NCSA. Mozilla was also in the running until grown-ups like Jim Barksdale took charge. A former senior executive of McCaw Cellular and Federal Express, Barksdale was brought in as CEO to ride a corporate stallion that threatened to grow out of control. From three employees in April 1994, Netscape grew to 200 in May to nearly 500 now. While Marc joined Bark and Clark in Netscape's executive cubicles, he remains the software guru. He still reads all those papers, still types as fast as a laser printer and still answers megabytes of e-mail. (Try dropping him a line at marca@netscape.corn.)

Netscape's Navigator came out in late1994 and was an even bigger hit than Mosaic. Given away for nothing, like its progenitor, the Navigator immediately ruled the Net, claiming 70 percent of the browser market. Today, businesses have to buy the browsers, along with more sophisticated software that constructs Web sites-products that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a big company. That's where Netscape profitability lies. Even home users are paying for souped-up version stores (839), as well as downloading nothing online (it's free for 90 days and then you're asked to fork over the digital cash).

Netscape will have to sell mountains of software to justify the financial world's preternatural hopes for it. And they know it at the company's headquarters, built on an old Superfund site. Cots are never empty and breakfast cereal is de rigueur on every engineer's desk. The Aug. 9 public offering enriched every employee: Clark is now worth more than a billion dollars; Barksdale a few hundred million; even the personnel manager has a virtual 810 million. But that also generates pressure. "It makes you more visible," Clark acknowledges. "You're an abysmal failure if you fail."

Whom do they worry about? For one, that Gates fellow in Redmond, Wash. "You can't ignore the most powerful software company in the world," says Clark, "but if you spend your time worrying about Microsoft, you'll become a follower." For his part, Andreessen professes respect for Bill Gates, but mocks him at every chance. At a recent convention, Andreessen referred to him as "one industry observer." The whole model of Net commerce makes paranoia inevitable. "Your competition is only a mouse click away," notes Doerr, who helped Clark finance Netscape. Because Web software is based on "open standards"--not a proprietary system like Windows 95--it means the best products probably will triumph. "Customers can't stand being controlled by the vendor," Barksdale says. "Even the people in Redmond get that now."

Barksdale also knows that Netscape's remarkable riches can spawn a dysfunctional culture. "We hit a home run," he says, "but the pitch was thrown right to us and we happened to be at bat. My hope is the people here will not let this largesse influence their sense of serf-worth., Barksdale made a rule that employees may not talk about the stock in the office: But one clever employee rigged his computer to flash an NSCP price quote every day at 4. Another keeps getting conflicting advice from her friends--in one ear, it's "Sell!"; in the other, it's "Hold!" And everyone complains about being asked at parties when they're buying that Mercedes or hillside retreat in Woodside.

Lou Montulli understands the mixed emotions of newfound wealth. "I used to say you couldn't make more than a million dollars honestly," he says, feeding the snowflake eel in his Fish Cam. "It was sort of Marxist. You really do visit these issues philosophically." Montulli will have ample opportunity to work out any lingering ambivalence. He's going to be seeing a lot of the Valley's consummate capitalist. You see, next year, Montulli is marrying Jim Clark's daughter.