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What's next for Web pioneer Andreessen?

Credited with delivering the Web to the masses, the Netscape cofounder reflects on his time at Netscape and says he looks forward to discovering and nurturing technology start-ups.

If writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was correct that there are no second acts in American lives, Marc Andreessen appears to be playing out a classic American drama.

Then again, forgive the 28-year-old Andreessen if his first act proves hard to follow.

In a span of time only slightly longer than it takes most people to pay off a lease on a new car, Andreessen has gone from an anonymous college student to the poster boy for the coming-of-age of the Internet and its profound impact on the world.

Andreessen announced last week that he will step down from his seven-month-old role as chief technology officer at America Online, which acquired Netscape Communications earlier this year. Though he will remain as a part-time adviser to AOL, he is severing all but the thinnest link to Netscape, which immediately raised speculation about why Andreessen left and what he plans to do next.

"I wanted to be able to spend more time with start-ups, both with the AOL job and on my own," said Andreessen in an interview with CNET News.com. "So I had to craft a different job. I wasn't eased out of anything. I'm very happy with how it came out."

Andreessen, whose five-year marital engagement recently fell apart, also denied that turbulence in his personal life had anything to do with the professional transition. He said he will retain his homes in Silicon Valley and Virginia for the time being, though he says he is at home wherever he finds himself with his briefcase and cell phone.

Work started in college
Andreessen studied computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After graduating in 1993, he headed the team that pioneered the Internet browser at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

With the first graphical Web browser, developed with colleague Eric Bina, Andreessen then helped launch Netscape Communications in 1994 and guided the early development of the company's Communicator browser.

Armed with Communicator, and later Microsoft's Internet Explorer, consumers flocked to the Web, giving the medium a penetration rate in tech-hungry American society that surpassed television and radio.

The impact has been profound on a diverse range industries: finance, entertainment, publishing, telecommunications, software, and advertising, to name a few. In a broader sense, the very way that business is conducted in the United States, even the world, has changed. The scope of this transformation is overshadowed only by the fact that it occurred in just five years.

Andreessen's early success has proved a tough act to follow, particularly against the backdrop of Netscape's decline and ultimate sale to AOL following a bloody street fight with Microsoft--a battle that resulted in mighty Microsoft being hauled into federal court to face charges that it abused its monopoly position to unfairly pummel Netscape.

Partners in success
Indeed, Andreessen and Netscape have risen and fallen in tandem, emerging from their wild ride with their eminently marketable name recognition, and considerable valuations, intact.

Andreessen's appointment as AOL's CTO perplexed many when it was announced earlier this year. It was observed that AOL, a company that practically prides itself on not being a technology company, had never before needed the position--and still didn't need it after the merger.

Some speculated that AOL, ever savvy when it comes to the importance of branding and personality, carved out a largely ceremonial position for Andreessen both for his own marketable celebrity and to assure the world that it was not merely buying Netscape to head off competition on the portal front and to salvage it for parts.

But with last week's departure, the demise of Netscape and the waning of Andreessen's influence at the Internet behemoth seem clear. In AOL's recent high-profile confrontation with Microsoft over instant messaging technology, the chief technology officer--with five years' experience fending off Microsoft's attacks on Netscape--says he was only peripherally involved in the battle.

"I was able to say, 'Here's what Microsoft can do, here are some of the issues,'" Andreessen said. "But AOL has an incredibly competent team of business managers, and those guys are running the business."

Some observers note that while AOL and Andreessen share the basic mission of bringing easy-to-use software to the mass market, the young Andreessen was not a good fit within AOL's corporate culture.

"The AOL culture is very different from Netscape's," said Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the Netscape profile Competing on Internet Time. "Marc is very much a technologist who does like to push the edge in technology and has more opportunity to do that as a VC, or adviser. AOL itself is not a technology company."

Marc, Part II
Andreessen has plenty of years ahead of him to graft a second act onto his career. Part of the difficulty of guessing how that act will unfold is in identifying his talents and passions. Do they involve running a business, evangelizing, programming?

Andreessen's recollections of his involvement with the first browser and at Netscape provide a clue into the type of activities he is likely to pursue and to shun.

Often chided for taking more than his fair share of credit in the design of the first browser, Andreessen said that over the course of three months he designed the user interface and networking software while Bina created the heart of the browser, its rendering engine.

From there, Andreessen found that his interest was not in conceiving and coding applications, but in the dissemination of the product to tens of millions of people. It was at this point that the largely self-taught software programmer began his business tutelage under Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale and cofounder Jim Clark.

"In those early days I was having a ball, learning how businesses work," Andreessen recalled. "Jim Barksdale was stellar, and Jim Clark was a creative genius. I learned that it was scale and size that really mattered."

That did not leave time, or interest, for the nuts and bolts of technological innovation.

Eyes on the prize
"I don't think I wrote a line of code at Netscape," Andreessen said. "We had 1,200 of the world's smartest programmers, and I worked with them. But it all gets back to scale. When you do something new, how are you going to have it used by 50 million people? If I were writing all the code, only 50,000 would ever see it."

Andreessen's intended involvement with start-up ventures will combine his own investments and those of AOL, which will keep him as a part-time "strategic adviser." In that sense, Andreessen will return to the kind of start-up culture where he thrived initially, though more in the role of a venture capitalist than that of a technological innovator.

Andreessen recalls Netscape's start-up days with mixed feelings, however, citing the intense--and justified--paranoia that competitors were plotting to pull the rug out from under the fledgling company.

"The first year at Netscape was an emotional roller coaster," Andreessen said. "One moment we were euphoric, thinking we were going to own the world. The next moment we were clinically depressed. That was emotionally a very rocky time. This is the dark side of the start-up experience."

Andreessen's former colleagues say he has struggled with the attention and expectations that followed his meteoric rise.

"He's fundamentally an engineer and a pretty good visionary," said Lou Montulli, a founding engineer at Netscape and currently an engineer at Epinions.com. "But then he was thrust into this role as poster child of the Internet, which he was always uncomfortable with."

Selling the Web
But at the same time, Montulli said, Andreessen found himself increasingly attracted to his role as a salesman for the Web.

"In the first year he was so in tune with the Web and he really led that effort at Netscape," Montulli said. "But as years went by he was more removed from that technology and more involved in the whole Web evangelism aspect."

Andreessen refuses to complain about the pressures of living up to the prodigious achievements of his early 20s, and about his universally recognized role as an "Internet poster boy." He insists he has nothing to prove.

"I've already proved to myself at Netscape that I could do it, so I don't really feel like I need to go do it again just to show I can," Andreessen said.

"I'm just doing the things that I think are interesting and are important," he added. "Whenever someone has an opinion on what I should be doing or not, it just amuses me. Because you know what? They ain't me."

News.com's Jim Hu and Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.