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Making sense of the Barksdale legacy

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper writes that the failure of the former Netscape CEO's latest venture reopens the debate over his ultimate legacy: Was he good or was he overrated?

The debate over whether or not Jim Barksdale was a great captain of the Internet industry or just greatly overrated rages on, and I suppose both sides will find grist in the saga of The Barksdale Group.

After all, this once-ballyhooed venture firm featured some of the (supposedly) brightest minds that money could employ. The publicity celebrating its formation in 1999 was typically over-the-top, but that was to be expected given the times and the occasion. After all, this bunch had former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale running the show, not Sal from Queens.

It turned out Sal from Queens probably couldn't have done any worse than Jim from Tennessee.

Considering the advance hype, expectations were predictably high. But like a lot of well-heeled Internet types, the economic implosion of 2000 to 2001 rudely interfered with Barksdale's reincarnation as gentleman investor.

Fact is that The Barksdale Group was a dud. I dare say the most interesting news clip came when a former employee confessed to embezzling a little over $100,000 and downloading what at the time was described as "sensitive information." Outside of that, it was a non-eventful performance, so non-eventful, in fact, the fund decided to dissolve itself.

Barksdale, now a "special adviser" to General Atlantic Partners, a private equity group in Greenwich, Conn., remains a much-revered figure in Silicon Valley, lauded for the role he played leading Netscape and the rest of the computer industry into the Internet Age. Supporters maintain that the passing of The Barksdale Group needs to be treated as part of the more general collapse in the technology business, so why point fingers?

Well, somebody's got to be a 20/20 second guesser, so I volunteer. Personally speaking, I always liked Barksdale, but I don't know what to make of the man's legacy. The question that still lingers is simply this: Was he as brilliant as his handlers made him out to be or was he just plain lucky?

He was definitely smart.

Barksdale convinced Janet Reno's Justice Department to investigate his concerns about Microsoft and launch an antitrust probe (and file the subsequent antitrust lawsuit). That was no easy feat, and neither was his ensuing courtroom battle against Microsoft attorney John Warden in October 1998.

Microsoft assumed that Warden, an assassin in a pin-striped suit, would walk away from the courtroom confrontation with Barksdale's scalp. But Barksdale, a smooth-talking Southerner every bit as wily as his inquisitor, put on a magnificent rope-a-dope and parried Warden for five days, leaving the stand with not a single hair out of place.

And, of course, he sweet-talked (or should it be "suckered"?) America Online into paying top dollar for Netscape, a company that was otherwise destined to become the biggest ever dot-com implosion of all time.

So give him some credit: He could outfox a top trial lawyer and outmaneuver Steve Case. But the fact remains he couldn't deal with Bill Gates.

The antitrust trial revealed in brutal detail that Microsoft played by Hama rules as it scrambled to catch up to Netscape. The record also shows that Netscape botched a football-field's-length lead in the browser war. Don't forget that shortly after Gates declared Microsoft had become "hard core" about the Internet, Netscape owned nearly 90 percent of the browser market in early 1996! You can blame Microsoft's evil hand for only so much. Then it's time to look elsewhere for explanations.

"Many of Netscape's problems in execution came from broad technical and product visions that assumed the revolution was upon us already," write professors Michael Cusumano and David Yoffie in "Competing on Internet Time," their seminal study of Netscape's seminal battle with Microsoft.

The company wound up with too many products, and by 1997, the authors concluded, Netscape had a huge product portfolio. The problem was that "they were good products, but not all were great products. And customers noticed."

That's because Barksdale was slow to move Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen out of day-to-day operations and into the role of technology visionary. By his own admission, Andreessen is not a management guy, but he was kept in charge of product development far too long. Barksdale eventually made the move, but his hesitation cost Netscape dearly.

In addition, the failure to build up a stable of enterprise products quickly enough came back to haunt Netscape when Microsoft announced the free availability of its Internet Explorer browser. Netscape was in a bind because it remained dependent on revenue from Navigator. Had the higher-end stuff been available sooner, that would have freed Netscape to match Microsoft's move.

This is only a partial accounting. There were other managerial miscues along the way, and they accumulated to the point that Netscape just couldn't compete anymore.

His employees would follow Barksdale to the ends of the earth. He had a corn-pone, just-folks way of charming his people. As one of them told me, 5,000 people were ready to march behind him to storm the barricades.

The tragedy of Netscape was that, in a crunch, charisma just wasn't a good-enough substitute for great management, if not generalship. And that will have to be factored into any final accounting of the man's legacy.