History lessons with Marc Andreessen

Industry veteran talks about his current company, Ning; why he's not as mad at Microsoft as everyone thinks he is; and why he made that "nuclear winter" comment.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--"It turns out that the Internet has worked pretty well," industry mainstay Marc Andreessen told an audience at the Web 2.0 Expo here Thursday morning.

Andreessen's keynote interview with Federated Media chief John Battelle was somewhat of a history lesson into the distant past of the Web (you know, 15 years ago) followed by the requisite speculation about an uncertain future.

Marc Andreessen
Marc Andreessen looks back and ahead at the Web 2.0 Expo. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET Networks

"It was a very confusing time," Andreessen said of the Net's early days. In the early days of Mosaic, the browser created by Andreessen that eventually evolved into Netscape and then Mozilla and then Firefox, "the conventional wisdom in the business world and in large parts of the press was that interactive television was going to be the future...the Internet, really, at the time, and the Web and Mosaic were really sort of renegade academic research projects."

But Andreessen's current project, Ning, couldn't be less renegade. The slick dot-com, which taps into the social-media craze by letting members build their own social networks without requiring technical expertise, has been fueled not only by Andreessen's Valley cred but also by a sky-high valuation and a recent $60 million funding round that the exec famously said was for an economic "nuclear winter."

"I have no idea what's really going to happen," Andreessen said when Battelle asked him about the "nuclear" comment. "There's this huge irony for our industry...we got blamed for a lot of the last crash. We are the most remote uncorrelated part to this crash that's happening because tech may have lots of issues but we tend to not have a lot of debt and this is all about debt and credit.

Regardless, Andreesen seems to think his own company's well-prepared. He proudly touted some Ning statistics: more than 250,000 individual social networks have been created, 75 percent of which are active. Page views are going up 10 percent week over week; a million new members are joining every month; and 1,500 networks are created every day.

But Ning, like Battelle's Federated Media, could take a big advertising hit in a recession. Once again, Andreessen reminded Battelle and the audience that things tend to be unpredictable. Back in the early days, he said, "everybody told us there was no way to make money on the Internet."

Battelle made sure he touched upon a particularly touchy subject for Andreessen: Microsoft. Gates & Co. famously dealt a fatal blow to Andreessen's Netscape Navigator browser in 1995 when it released Internet Explorer. Anyone hoping for nastiness would've been disappointed, though, as Andreessen's take on Microsoft was quite friendly. "It's hard to even conceive what this industry would be like if Microsoft hadn't standardized the operating system," he said.

"Our view was, we adapt," Andreessen said when asked if he'd freaked out over the debut of Explorer. "The browser turned into Mozilla, which turned into Firefox, which has been a huge success."

Andreessen also addressed Microsoft's ongoing desire to acquire Yahoo. "If the deal goes through I think it will actually be a really good deal. I think they'll get a lot out of it," he said.

But he added that he'd be a bit sad for Yahoo. "It's always a little bit sad, the prospect of an entrepreneurial company, especially one that's had that kind of success over the years, not being independent. But over time these things are part of the natural evolution."

The media business hasn't figured out that direction yet, in his view. "Most of the major media companies are still largely unprepared for the shift, which is ironic considering how long the stuff has been around. If you look at newspapers right now they're just in absolute freefall from a business standpoint."

He kept talking about evolution. But somewhat paradoxically, he repeatedly emphasized that nobody can really tell where it's going. "We're 15 years into it, and yet things are still developing, and a lot of things are still unknown."