Zuckerberg is world's best CEO, Twitter the eighth wonder, says Marc Andreessen

The venture capitalist has been tweeting up a storm, sharing his thoughts on everything from startups to activist shareholders. In an exclusive interview, Andreessen offers his take on the Apple Watch, bitcoin and dot-com blunders.

Marc Andreessen
Prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen says Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is the world's best CEO: "He's absolutely fearless and he has a cult-like following inside the company. People love working for him." James Martin/CNET

Marc Andreessen isn't shy about sharing his opinions.

Since January, the Internet browser pioneer-turned-venture capitalist has been using Twitter to blast out thoughts on everything from former government contractor Edward Snowden (he's a traitor, says Andreessen) to profligate spending by startups on fancy headquarters and perks. (Many companies burning cash will "vaporize," he warns.)

In fact, Andreessen, co-founder of Silicon Valley-based venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, has sent out nearly 32,000 tweets since January, which averages out to more than 100 tweets a day. He admits he's delighted by the fact that press is eager to report on whatever "tweetstorm" he unleashes next. When asked why he decided to turn up the volume on Twitter in recent months, the fast-talking 43-year-old explains that it's because "many of the debates we have at a national level are a result of what's happening in technology today."

And he's not just using Twitter because he was an early investor in the social-media site.

"Twitter has become the central nervous system for public communication," Andreessen said in an hour-long question-and-answer session last week at CNET News. "It's how everybody from the Pope to the president of Iran communicates."

So while Andreessen earned fame for co-authoring Mosaic, the first widely used Web browser, in the mid-1990s, it's his thoughts today on technologies and tech titans from Twitter to bitcoin to Apple's new smartwatch to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (he sits on Facebook's board) that keep him in the news.

Here's a sampling of what he had to say.

On Mark Zuckerberg's leadership: The 30-year-old co-founder of Facebook, the world's biggest social-media network, may be the best CEO in America. Why? One reason is results; the company's revenue and profit have been jumping pretty steadily, even after its IPO. But his leadership style also has something to do with it.

"He's the real deal, he's unbelievably thoughtful and deliberative, he's incredibly confident, but he has the capability, he freely changes his own mind," Andreessen said. "He's absolutely fearless and he has a cult-like following inside the company. People love working for him."

On Twitter's influence: Twitter may be the eighth wonder of the world, Andreessen said, and that's not just because he was an angel investor in the social-media site that lets you share thoughts in 140-character sound bites.

Twitter represents a lot of what's happening between the tech industry and the rest of the world, Andreessen said. For its first couple of years, Twitter was considered only for San Francisco hipsters to send missives about what their cat had for breakfast. "Fast-forward six or eight years later, and it's used all over the world and it's sweeping the world and it's being used all over the place and it's how everybody from the Pope to the president of Iran communicates," he said. "Twitter has become the central nervous system for public communication."

Andreessen also likes that journalists are obsessed with it. "It's like I have a microphone and a loudspeaker installed in reporter cubicles all over the world."

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On Tim Cook, the Apple Watch and Steve Jobs: Apple's iPod, iPhone and iPad reinvented product categories and changed how we live. But questions have plagued the company about whether the Cupertino, Calif., consumer electronics giants could do it again without co-founder Steve Jobs at the helm. Tim Cook, who took over as CEO from Jobs three years ago, hadn't taken Apple into new markets beyond those established by his former boss -- until now.

Cook last month unveiled Apple's first wearable, the Apple Watch, along with a new mobile-payments system called Apple Pay. Both announcements, along with bigger-screen iPhones, helped calm fears Apple's best days might be behind it.

"For the last two years, the open question has been, 'Is that it?'" Andreessen said. "The general consensus is so far so good -- very inspiring."

Andreessen said the watch and the payments system should mute questions about whether Cook can "keep the innovation freight train going" or whether he might be "John Sculley 2.0" -- a reference to the former PepsiCo executive who became Apple's third CEO in 1983 and is best remembered for forcing Jobs out of the company.

While he "can't wait" to try the Apple Watch -- it isn't due on the market until early 2015 -- Andreessen said he's not yet sure what his favorite features will be. He hopes it will let him keep a tab on his email and other communications.

"When we meet with people, we treat people with respect so we try to meet on time and then we have a no laptop, no phone, no tablet, no email rule," Andreessen said of the meeting rules at his venture firm. But he has a "sneaking hope" he'll be able to discretely monitor notifications through the Apple Watch . Still, "it's kind of a small screen," he said, and Andreessen expects he'll be caught checking emails on the sly.

As for killer apps for the wearable, Andreessen believes "people are going to figure it out."

Andreessen also shared his thoughts on Jobs, the visionary behind the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone and the executive who led one of the most successful turnarounds by returning to lead Apple when it was near bankruptcy in 1997 and transforming it into one of the most valuable companies in the world.

"What can you say? Steve is ... overwhelmingly the No. 1 benchmark the founders we work with aspire to be like."

On bitcoin: When asked what technology he wished he had invented, Andreessen doesn't hesitate: "bitcoin."

The crypto-currency is viewed today in the same way the Internet was in 1993, when it was slow and difficult to access unless you were a master of computer science. "When we tried to get investors for Netscape, most of them said 'you're out of your mind,'" Andreessen said. "This is the thing that's most like that of anything I've seen in the last 20 years."

While the potential for bitcoin is "staggering," he acknowledged that most consumers don't yet understand its potential. Startups need to find ways to make bitcoin easier to use, and Andreessen hopes that one day soon bitcoin can be used for basic transactions like buying a car -- and then having the vehicle license transferred through a mobile app.

His own firm is already an investor in CoinBase, a digital wallet that lets users buy and sell the currency, and is looking to invest in more bitcoin services. "It's just early. If you really care about it you can do it but you need to be really up to speed," he said. "In three years time, this is going to be completely obvious."

On AmazonFresh and Webvan: Amazon's expanding grocery delivery service is "a huge success," pulling off what Webvan, a grocery delivery service that went bankrupt in 2001 after growing rapidly, could not, said Andreessen. Amazon is building out its warehouse and logistics system to accommodate same-day delivery of fresh goods, and will take the service nationwide before the end of the year with help from the US Postal Service.

While Webvan is often used as a symbol of the dot-com bust, Andreessen says the delivery service and other dot-com failures, including Pets.com, were just "too early," he said. "The dot-com ideas from 1996 to 2000 were all right."

On PayPal's spinoff from eBay: As a member of eBay's board of directors, Andreessen wouldn't go into specifics about the online auction service's decision to establish its PayPal payments service as a separate company. But he did say "smaller companies can simply move faster."

"It's not like this was some new idea," he said. "There was always a question of whether, and then there was a question of when...When PayPal was first born, there was a reason why it was bought by eBay. It was never going to be a standalone company in 2001," he said. "Today, it can be."

Activist investor Carl Icahn rallied for the change earlier this year and criticized eBay's board, sparking a public exchange between Andreessen and the billionaire. Icahn accused Andreessen of unethical practices related to eBay's sale of Skype (Andreessen was involved in the sale), while Andreessen highlighted Icahn's role in the dismantling of airline company TWA. "There are not many people who can take credit for destroying an entire airline," he said.

The takeaway from the eBay-PayPal drama is that activist investors are becoming more influential. While they have had a hand in smaller companies, activists are starting to take on large companies including eBay, Microsoft and Apple.

"Back in the day, if activists had shown up one day and said 'Hi, you don't know me but I just bought 2 percent of your stock and now I expect to tell you how to run your company,' they would just laugh them off," he said. "In the new world, all the shareholders are much more prone to work with the activists, so I think there's going to be a lot more of that."

On Edward Snowden, encryption and government surveillance: The spying scandal that erupted after Snowden leaked secret National Security Agency documents to the press in 2013 forever altered the debate over domestic and international government surveillance. Andreessen set off a Twitter debate a few months ago when he called Snowden a traitor, but he acknowledged the effect that's Snowden's actions has had on public discourse. "The balance of power between citizens and their governments is going to the hot topic of all time, for 20 years," Andreessen said.

Andreessen also said the Crypto Wars will come back to finish what was started in the 1990s. Back then, the NSA declared computer cryptography a weapon that could not be exported, which affected how Netscape built its Navigator browser. The government initially classified Navigator as "ammunition" for export purposes "equivalent to a Tomahawk missile," he said. "We could only ship weak encryption internationally."

The tech community and its legal allies eventually won that war -- or so they thought. While he remains a critic of Snowden, Andreessen said it was last year's document trove that proved the government gave up on trying to weaponize cryptography because it found other ways monitor people.

"I'm now convinced that the reason that [the government] caved -- this is the one thing we have from the disclosures -- they realized they had many other ways of penetrating the same systems," he said. "In a sense, crypto as it was in 1998 went from being what [the government] viewed as a liability, to being an asset."

-- With reporting by Connie Guglielmo, Seth Rosenblatt, Ian Sherr, Donna Tam and Shara Tibken

Update, 11:24 a.m. P.T. to add comments on Snowden.


 

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