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Mobile

AOL exec leaves for wireless start-up

Underscoring the lure of the wireless market and the difficulty of retaining employees, a key technologist departs the Netscape unit to head Pixo.

Underscoring both the lure of the red-hot wireless communications market and the difficulty of retaining employees with fully vested stock options, a key browser technologist has departed America Online's Netscape unit to head cell phone software company Pixo.

Dave Rothschild, former vice president of client products at Netscape Communications, joined Pixo as chief executive this week. He replaced David St. Charles, who will remain on Pixo's board. Rothschild has served as an advisory board member since February 1999.

"Wireless Internet is a new frontier similar to what we saw back in 1995 with the Internet at Netscape," Rothschild said in an interview. "The technology pieces are just starting to come together, and there's a great opportunity to help bring the Internet into the wireless cell phone world."

Pixo's products consist of a microbrowser, which lets small devices such as cell phones display information from Web pages, and basic handset software that lets cell phones access the cellular network.

The 3-year-old company competes against Microsoft and Phone.com, among others, in an exploding market. Sales of mobile handsets jumped 65 percent in 1999 to 283 million units, according to Gartner Group unit Dataquest, which predicted sales would top 410 million units by the end of the year.

The departure of Rothschild, 41, from AOL comes as so-called first-generation Internet companies struggle to keep valuable employees from migrating to second-generation start-ups. In addition, AOL employees on the Mountain View, Calif., Netscape campus are rumored to be leaving in large numbers following this month's vesting "cliff" of certain incentive stock option grants.

"Retention at Netscape is consistent with (Silicon) Valley levels," Netscape spokeswoman Catherine Corre said. "We did see some people who chose to leave this month, but it was nothing unusual."

Rothschild downplayed but did not deny the role of AOL's vesting schedule in the timing of his departure from the company.

"There is such a cliff for a lot of folks, but there are cliffs throughout the year," he said. "For me, it was more the opportunity at Pixo and the fact that we had shipped the Netscape 6 beta. I really wanted to see that to completion, having been there from version 1.1 to 6.0."

After two years of labor and numerous delays, Netscape launched the first trial, or beta, version of its Communicator 6.0 browser earlier this month.

Rothschild joined Netscape in February 1995, when the company was in its infancy. As vice president of client products, he reported Bob Lisbonne, head of client products, who left Netscape in October.

Rothschild said Pixo tapped him for his Internet technology expertise.

"The company wanted to move more into the Internet space, and that's a lot of my relevant experience," he said. "I worked on integrating software and services at Netscape, and they wanted someone who could come in and help do that while (St. Charles) worked on the funding and international strategy side. It's one thing to know software, it's one thing knowing service, and it's another thing knowing both. And that's what we did for five years at Netscape."

Privately held Pixo, one of several start-ups finding their respective niches in the wireless market, last month won $29.5 million in funding from Japanese cellular phone distributor Hikari Tsushin. In another win, Samsung said it will use the company's software in its new line of mobile phones.