Marc Andreessen, V.P. of Technology for Netscape Communications, Inc. is best- known as the creator of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Mosaic graphical browser for the Internet World Wide Web. Since leaving NCSA in 1994, he briefly worked for Enterprise Integration Technologies/Terisa Systems before joining with James Clark, ex-President of Silicon Graphics to form Netscape Communications, Inc. Since the company was formed, Marc has led the team which created Netscape Navigator, currently the premier World Wide Web browser for the MS Windows, Macintosh and Xwindows platforms. Netscape Communcations has also created a complementary pair of World Wide Web servers for the Unix platform, one of which makes use of Netscape's Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology to offer fully-secure two-way communications via the Web.
Marc Andreessen has become a media celebrity. In December, 1994 he was profiled in 'People' magazine and he has become a regular speaker at Internet-related trade shows. The demands his public life has made on his time have not prevented Mr. Andreessen from managing to create a major upgrade to Netscape Navigator (which had just gone into beta test as this interview was held.) Despite Mr. Andreessen's busy schedule, Thom Stark caught up to him long enough to conduct the following interview.
Thom Stark--You are the principal architect behind the two most popular World Wide Web graphical browsers in current use: NCSA Mosaic and Netscape Navigator. In fact, it would be fair to say that you are almost single-handedly responsible for the explosive growth of the Web over the past 18 months or so.
Marc Andreessen--Mmm..okay. (Laughs)
Thom Stark--You laugh, but, without those graphical browsers, the Web would be a lot less popular than it is.
Marc Andreessen--I think there are three aspects to it: I think the browsers are obviously important, I think also the servers are important and the single most important thing that has happened is the thousands of people that have created new applications using this stuff that none of us thought of or ever would have thought of.
Thom Stark--How did you originally come to take on the task of creating NCSA Mosaic? Was it assigned to you or did you choose it as a project?
Marc Andreessen--I guess you've got to understand the context of what NCSA is: it's basically a Federally-funded research center. When I was there, it had been around for roughly eight years or so and, at that point, it had a very large established budget--many millions of dollars a year --and a fairly large staff and, frankly, not enough to do.
Marc Andreessen--NCSA is a fairly free-form environment..and we certainly had the resources, the money, the machines and the network to be able to do interesting things. When it occurred to Eric Bina and myself that creating a graphical Web client would be an interesting thing to do, we were in an environment where we were able to go do that.
Thom Stark--Then you came up with the idea to create Mosaic on your own?
Marc Andreessen--Yeah. I mean, NCSA is not a place where there are necessarily a whole lot of well-defined directions or goals. A lot of the interesting things that have happened there--in fact, most of the interesting things that have happened there--have been because one or more people decided to do something interesting..and then did it.
Thom Stark--What motivated you to move from this stimulating and unstructured academic environment into the commercial realm?
Marc Andreessen--One of the aspects of it was that (NCSA) simply wasn't a software development environment. And more to the point, it wasn't a company, so it didn't have a clear, well-defined mission to be able to create and maintain great software..which, in fact, I don't think it should, because, after all, it is a research environment. And so, as a result of not having those attributes, it also wasn't, in any sense of the word, "managed" in a way that I think you'd want to have it be, if you were trying to create and maintain great software. We basically reached the end of what we were able to do at NCSA. It got popular and, after that, there's basically no way for an organization of that nature to maintain it.
Thom Stark--So there wasn't an external stimulus for you leaving NCSA, such as someone making you an offer you couldn't refuse?
Marc Andreessen--No. I had a handful of offers--which were nice--but no, it was pretty much knowing that I had to leave there. You can only soak up government money for so long trying to do things that the management of the institution really would prefer that you not do.
Thom Stark--(Laughs.) Okay..
Marc Andreessen--Anyway, Mosaic has sort of been a pain for them.
Thom Stark--Yeah..in a sense, it's really become the tail that wags the dog.
Marc Andreessen--Exactly. In a sense, you know, they really need something like that, because it really doesn't make sense for there to be supercomputing centers anymore--because it really doesn't make sense for there to be supercomputers. It's really interesting: the attack of killer micros has killed it. We found at NCSA that scientists would prefer to have DEC Alphas on their desks than accounts on Crays. That's it--NCSA is no longer running Crays. I don't believe they're running their Connection machine any more, so..
Thom Stark--Between the time you left NCSA and the time you joined Netscape Communications, you were briefly employed by Enterprise Integration Technologies's subsidiary, Terisa Systems, a company whose proposed Secure HyperText Transport Protocol (S-HTTP) has come to be viewed as a direct competitor to Netscape's Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) as a potential Internet-wide standard for commercial Web implementations requiring packet encryption and authentification. Would you describe how that transition occurred?
Marc Andreessen--Sure. Basically, I got a really good offer and I think there are some really great people there. It was in the right part of the country, certainly--I fell in love with California the first time I came out here, in late 93, I think. Basically, EIT is another research organization--they're primarily funded by Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) grants for manufacturing and networking. So, again, it wasn't really the sort of environment where you're going to do a whole lot of mainstream software development.
Thom Stark--That appears to have been a repeating theme throughout your recent career. Would you say you're primarily interested in being a software developer, rather than, for instance, a kind of all-purpose trade show celebrity and guru?
Marc Andreessen--(Laughs.) No, I like being in a situation where you've got a clear motivation and a clear means to be able to do something really significant. What I've found is that the only way that that ever happens is when the motivations are, in fact, commercial. That's the only time you're ever actually going to have the amount of power and leverage that you're going to need to be able to do something really interesting. Otherwise, it's just going to run out of steam. So, then I met Jim Clark and we started talking about various things we could do and it made a lot of sense to try and do that in the context of a new company.
Thom Stark--You've become a real celebrity over the course of the past few months, to such an extent that you've actually been featured in "People" magazine..
Marc Andreessen--(Laughs.) Isn't that hilarious?
Thom Stark--Yes, particularly in view of your being a self-described software developer. Has your celebrity been more of a burden than a blessing?
Marc Andreessen--It depends. The reason I've kind of enjoyed the past several months is that I think I've been able to help the company a great deal-- been able to help the shared interests of everyone at the company by raising the company's profile a great deal. And that's pretty much how I'm trying to treat it. It's part of the process we're going through to try and establish this as a company.
Thom Stark--The question of whether it's more a burden than a blessing comes down to the demands that it makes on your time--this interview being an example..
Marc Andreessen--There's always more demands than there's time to meet them, so it's constantly a matter of trying to balance them. You know, there have been times when it's sort of like, "Am I ever going to have time to do work again?"
Thom Stark--Have you reached the point where it's like, "Enough of this--I just want to cuddle up with my keyboard and my monitor and get some code out the door?"
Marc Andreessen--A couple of months ago I started to get frustrated and decided to try to cut back. Also, I think overexposure would be a really bad thing.
Thom Stark--Getting back to less personal issues: Netscape currently offers a Web server which uses the SSL protocol you developed to permit secure transactions over the Web for business uses, and Netscape Navigator supports SSL transparently. On the other hand, EIT/Terisa offers S-HTTP, which many users have apparently come to believe is an actual accepted standard. You've published a statement of Netscape's position on secure standards on your Web server, but could you briefly address that issue in the context of business uses of the Internet?
Marc Andreessen--It's been interesting to watch the politics of the whole process. It really gets fairly complex, and I don't think the complexity has necessarily been completely understood by everyone trying to sort of track what's been going on.
Thom Stark--That's a fair understatement.
Marc Andreessen--(Laughs.) First of all, what we're basically going to do is, we're going to provide our customers with interoperability--whatever that takes, whatever that means. So, we'll support Secure HTTP, as well as whatever else emerges, but I do think it's important to understand that there aren't standards right now. The other thing about the barriers to real commercial activity is, fundamentally, there's a lack of software along a wide variety of types of things that people want to do. For, instance, you can't , today, buy a piece of software that lets a publisher on the network charge for access by the page. It's possible to do that. It's just not available in a form where it's going to be very widespread.
Thom Stark--Meaning that, current-day, it's a function that would have to be developed on a one-off basis, using in-house programming resources, because there are no off-the-shelf resources?
Marc Andreessen--Right. So, what we've formed this company to try to do, as rapidly as possible, is drive the deployment of software that is easy to use--that is packaged software that a lot of people can use to do a lot of interesting things.
Thom Stark--So Netscape is planning on offering a variety of what might be termed "server helper" applications?
Marc Andreessen--Yeah, I think that would be a fairly accurate perception. We're putting quite a bit more investment into the back end of things than we are into even the browser, because, really, things have gotten out of whack. The front ends have become more powerful and had more resources put into them, so far, than the back end has and I think that's a real problem, because both sides have to advance for the entire system to advance. The back end is probably the limiter.
Thom Stark--Netscape has recently formed a number of strategic alliances with some of the major vendors in the industry. Novell has stated that they're going to be bundling Netscape Navigator's functionality into their Internet Publisher add-on for WordPerfect 6.1 for Windows..
Marc Andreessen--Yeah, I think there are a number of things we're going to be doing with Novell. I think those are basically going to unfold over the next few months--over the next year. There's certainly a lot of things that we've talked about. The first announcement that was made was just the declaration of partnership and the first instantiation of that. But, I would expect us to work probably closely with Novell on both the front and the back end.
Thom Stark--Currently, the only NetWare NLM-based Web server is the Great Lakes Area Commercial Internet HTTPD offering. Will Netscape be working with Novell to create an actual Novell Web server NLM?
Marc Andreessen--I think that's likely, although the only thing I'd say is that we haven't made any announcements, yet. We certainly haven't announced any date. But, I would think that that would be very likely. Supporting NetWare LANs is certainly one of the things on our plate --it's one of the things we want to do as a company.
Thom Stark--Do you, personally have much acquaintance with the inner workings of NetWare and particularly with NLM programming? Do you have any level of comfort with that?
Marc Andreessen--Certainly not as much as I should have, but I think we have people inside the company already who have a pretty good understanding of it. I think we'll be able to develop--to find the talent to let us do that.
Thom Stark--Access to Usenet, a really useful email interface, a front end for Internet Relay Chat and a number of other popular Internet services aren't at all well-integrated into the current generation of Web browsers. Will Netscape be adding those kinds of functionality incrementally, or will you try to roll transparent support for a bunch of them into a generational leap for Netscape Navigator?
Marc Andreessen--Have you checked out the Netscape Navigator 1.1 beta release? We've always had support for reading newsgroups in Netscape, and we've had some support for posting to newsgroups in Netscape, but we've made quite a few enhancements to the News interface for 1.1 to make it easier to do that. So, I think we're starting to get in the ballpark, as far as News is concerned. Obviously, there's a ways to go, so you can do interesting things like you can have hyperlinks to News articles that point to other News articles or to other documents, have inline images in these articles, the whole set of things like that. Mail support is interesting, IRC types of things are interesting. One of the things that I think could have a major impact in here is the types of APIs that we're providing through mechanisms like OLE and DDE and AppleEvents. It's going to be, I think, much more prevalent for external applications like IRC or Mail applications to be able to tie very seamlessly into Netscape's front end. In fact, they'll be able to use Netscape's front end to go do retrievals over the network and, among the things that means is they'll be able to use the Netscape front end to do secure retrievals over the network. You'll be able to have applications sitting there on your desktop that are talking to Netscape and are using it to do certain things, so I think that's certainly a near- term route to pretty close integration. In the long term, I think it makes sense to start expanding the two-way communication mechanisms in the browser. I don't have anything real specific to say on that right now.
Thom Stark--Within the next two years, do you envision Netscape becoming a kind of comprehensive, all-in-one front end to the Internet, essentially replacing the grab-bag of different single-purpose applications currently necessary to fully exploit all the resources available on the Net?
Marc Andreessen--I think that's an accurate statement. In fact, I think we're actually not that far away from it right now. You know, there's always been this traditional view that you're going to have 15 different applications for the Internet, but, essentially, the programs that people use these days, as far as I can tell, are a browser, like Netscape, and an email program and maybe Telnet. So, I think we're actually getting fairly close to that already, and I think, over time, it's going to get a lot more coherent. I think the applications of something like Netscape to internal networks and to corporate-wide LANs are at least as interesting as applied to the Internet as a whole. You could recast that statement as a kind of universal interface to information resources on networks.
Thom Stark--Within the next two or three years, it's going to be as commonplace to have an Internet email address and a URL on a business card as it is today to have a telephone and fax number. Once that happens, the distinction between being on a corporate LAN and being on the Internet is going to pretty much evaporate, other than, if you have a firewall, which side of the firewall you're on.
Marc Andreessen--Yeah, I think that's true. And I think that, maybe carrying that even a little bit farther, you're going to find that people are going to start viewing the world as..as a concentric circle. In the very core of the circle is yourself, and then you move out from there into the workgroup, across the enterprise, and then to all of your existing customers, to all of your partners and then to all of the broader world, in general, to all of your potential partners and potential customers. It all comes down to a matter of access control: a matter of private domains of activity and public domains of activity and the ability for you to seamlessly jump between all of the different domains that you have access to.
Thom Stark--Over the course of the next couple of years, as the cost of both personal and corporate access to the Internet continues to decline and demand becomes ubiquitous, traffic congestion is going to become a major problem.
Marc Andreessen--That's a myth. I disagree with that completely.
Marc Andreessen--Well, congestion is a relative term, right? Congestion is only ever a problem if bandwidth is standing still. I don't think it's too much of an overstatement to say that bandwidth is going to be increasing, overall, in scope--and decreasing in price--even faster than microprocessors are in terms of power over the next ten years.
Thom Stark--And over the short term?
Marc Andreessen--In the very short term, the only bottleneck is really into the hub. I don't even particularly think it's even a problem inside companies. The reason I don't think that is because, fundamentally, a company has to decide what it's worth, and, if it brings enough added efficiency, and if it brings enough benefit to the business, then it's certainly worth the investment in upgrading the network. It's really not a congestion issue, per se, it's just an issue of value. If the value is there, then that's the way it's going to be and the value's going to be good, and, if the value's not there, it's not going to happen.
Thom Stark--Looking forward 5 or 10 years, there's been an incredible amount of hype in the public press about the so-called "information superhighway"..
Thom Stark--Most of the portrayals of how this information pathway will evolve have been of the cable-TV-on-steroids variety. In view of current trends and the way the marketplace appears to be evolving, can you dust off your crystal ball and give us some insight into how you think things will turn out?
Marc Andreessen--I think it's going to be a huge interconnection of all of these system, including, over time, some derivative of cable TV and some derivative of the current public telephone system. I think the types of networks that they're used to--companies--is an excellent indicator of where things are going to be going. They're probably a few years ahead of everything else. I think all of this stuff is being driven out of the computer industry, as opposed to the cable industry or any other industry. The television industry, or whatever. So, I think what the computer industry is doing is sort of where it's going to be leading.
Thom Stark--As opposed to 2,000 channels and still nothing on?
Marc Andreessen--I mean, what we're basically talking about is computer networking, when it comes down to it, and computer software running on the terminals, whether those terminals are TV sets or on computers, or notebooks, or whatever. Or PDAs, someday. Maybe.
Thom Stark--In closing, do you see the physical interfaces for all these services--TV, videophone service, personal computers, video games and the like--converging towards a single box?
Marc Andreessen--I think convergence is a model. I think interconnection is probably the right model. If you connect one to the other, I think you're pretty much there.
Thom Stark--Thanks very much.
Marc Andreessen--You're welcome.
(Copyright© 1995 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)