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Web pioneer Andreessen joins open-source venture

Internet visionary and Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreessen is set to announce he has invested in Collab.Net, a site for uniting corporations with open-source programmers.

\ Internet visionary and Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreessen will announce tomorrow he has invested in Collab.Net, a site for uniting corporations with open-source programmers.

Andreessen, now a member of the Collab.Net board, said he already has begun helping the company with its quest for more funding and customers. He joins Benchmark Capital as an investor.

Collab.Net functions as a cross between a middleman and a diplomat. The company charges a fee to connect companies with programmers from the vast, largely unorganized open-source community. In the open-source movement, software design isn't secret, so anyone can contribute to the effort.

The open-source movement is a grass-roots collection of sometimes colorful characters who have collectively created successful software such as the Linux operating system and Apache Web server software. But at times, the open-source world's strong philosophical stance and heated rhetoric can make for rough going for companies trying to hire developers.

Andreessen will raise Collab.Net's profile, said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt. The start-up already has strong open-source ties through chief technology officer Brian Behlendorf, a key figure in the Apache movement, but Andreessen will give Collab.Net a higher profile with proprietary software projects, she said.

Andreessen is "someone who can see application development from both sides, the proprietary and open-source models," Quandt said.

Indeed, Collab.Net chief executive Bill Portelli hopes that signing Andreessen will help get the word out about the company. "Marc is very well-networked," he said.

Andreessen's strongest ties with the open-source community stem from 1998, when Netscape decided to open the source code of the Netscape Web browser in a program called Mozilla. Though Andreessen acknowledges that project hasn't experienced the success of Linux or Apache, he believes interest in the browser will increase once a test version of the software is released in coming weeks.

Collab.Net is one of just a few boards Andreessen has joined since he left America Online. "I try to be selective," he said. "The kind of things I'm interested in are the ones that have a potential to have a transforming effect on the landscape."

He also is a member of the boards of CacheFlow, which builds special servers to speed Internet data transfer; Accompany, now called MobShop, which lets consumer band together to obtain lower prices on what they're buying; and Loudcloud, Andreessen's own start-up that helps companies set up complex Web sites quickly. He also is an investor in ReplayTV but resigned from its board because of conflict-of-interest issues when AOL acquired Netscape.

Netscape, the company that helped launch the Web revolution with its first browser, was one of the first Internet companies to see its valuation soar. Andreessen isn't the only former Netscape employee joining boards and investing in start-ups. Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale and chairman Jim Clark also turned into venture capitalists. Clark has backed Healtheon and MyCFO.com, while the Barksdale Group has backed HomeGrocer and Tellme.com. And while Clark has put his weight behind Shutterfly.com, Barksdale invested in the competing photography venture Ofoto.

Andreessen became more interested in Collab.Net when Frank Hecker, one of the three highest-ranking programmers at Netscape, joined the company. "That was the first time I sat and went, 'Hmm, that's interesting,'" Andreessen said.

Collab.Net also hired James Barry, the former IBM employee who was instrumental in getting Big Blue to adopt Apache into its own e-commerce software package.

Collab.Net's SourceXchange site for connecting programmers to companies competes chiefly with VA Linux Systems' SourceForge site, Quandt said. SourceForge has attracted hundreds of projects in the few months since its launch, but it doesn't focus on the rigors of working with companies.

CNET's
Linux Center Collab.Net offers a request-for-proposal process that allows programmers and companies to better evaluate each other. For example, Vovida Networks posts a laundry list of requirements in its proposal seeking programmers who can provide a graphical interface for its Linux software that lets a computer act like a telephone.

Though Collab.Net's roots are with open-source efforts, the company is expanding into a second, more proprietary realm, Portelli said. The company will host development projects for "gated" communities that still can benefit from Collab.Net's group-programming tools. For example, a company and its business partners often need to make sure their software products dovetail.

A third part of Collab.Net's business is in consultant work, advising companies on how best to work with the open-source movement--whether to open software up, when, and the best license to use for different circumstances.