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Andreessen preaches AOL religion

The newly established CTO asserts AOL's time-tested strategy of targeting consumers with easy-to-use devices and self-propagating communications tools.

SAN FRANCISCO--Marc Andreessen, one of America Online's newest employees, came to town today to preach that old-time AOL religion.

Andreessen, who became America Online's chief technology officer after AOL acquired Netscape, served up a keynote address at the Macromedia user conference here that reflected AOL's time-tested strategy of targeting consumers with easy-to-use devices and effective, self-propagating communications tools.

"As an industry we need to say we're not about creating new technology anymore," said the software engineer who found fame and riches inventing the Web browser later marketed by Netscape. "It's about the fact that this is increasingly a consumer phenomenon, driven by consumer behavior."

Andreessen noted that most consumers have little interest in the technical underpinnings of their computers and software and are chiefly interested in having simple user interfaces.

"Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were not downloading Java applets," quipped Andreessen, refering to the feature film You've Got Mail, which prominently featured AOL.

Andreessen focused much of his address on the implications of Metcalfe's Law, which states that the value of a network increases exponentially according to the number of computers connected to it.

As evidence that Metcalfe's Law is working, Andreessen cited AOL data suggesting that users are spending far more time online as subscriber rolls swell. Last year, AOL users spent an average of 14 minutes per day online. This year that figure is 55 minutes, Andreessen said.

A corollary reason users are spending more time online is the proliferation of what Andreessen dubbed "serial killer apps." Unlike the "killer apps" like word processing that drove the PC market in the 1980s, serial killer apps increase in usefulness as more people use them.

Andreessen cited email, Web calendaring, online auctions, instant messaging, and the Web itself as examples.

Also, the use of these applications increases as users encourage friends to adopt them in so-called viral marketing.

"Serial killer apps are the growth drivers of the Net," Andreessen said. "They're why people are increasingly getting online.

"eBay is the best example, though I do worry that the auction phenomenon is limited by the amount of crap in the world," Andreessen joked.

Andreessen also predicted a proliferation of new Net-enabled devices, though he would not guess what kind.

"Most of them are going to be complete failures," he said. "And some will be enormous winners that we're all going to use." Andreessen said it was anyone's guess which would succeed and which would fail.

Andreessen also addressed the socioeconomic inequities that have kept Net access concentrated among the relatively well-off. In response to a question about Internet privacy, he noted that with free PC and free Net access offers that require extensive divulging of information, privacy invasion could wind up affecting lower-income people disproportionately.