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Californication: The Making of Netscape

Californication: The Making of Netscape

When Netscape founder Jim Clark got together with browser developer Marc Andreessen, an idea was born which laid the foundations for Internet browsing as we now know it. Leslie Goff investigatesIn 1994, at the ripe old age of 4, the Web suddenly spawned the four companies that would shape its destiny for the remainder of the decade: Amazon.com, RealNetworks, Yahoo and - perhaps most important - Netscape Communications. Collectively, these companies would end up defining the categories that would lead the Web gold rush.

And it all happened before Microsoft had even begun to assess its own Internet strategy, writes Netscape co-founder Jim Clark in his book Netscape time: The making of the billion-dollar start-up that took on Microsoft.

In January 1994, Clark was packing up the accumulations of 12 years at California-based Silicon Graphics, the workstation vendor he founded in 1982. Having been pushed out of the company, he was both bitter and eager to prove himself again and was scouting for potential partners.

An SGI colleague, Bill Foss, suggested that Clark talk with Marc Andreessen, who had just come to Silicon Valley from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Clark had never heard of Andreessen or the popular Web browser Mosaic, which Andreessen had co-developed while working at the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

In Clark's first foray onto the Web, using a copy of Mosaic that Foss downloaded for him, Clark found Andreessen's homepage and e-mailed him. A few days later, they met at one of Palo Alto, California's deal-making hot spots, Cafe Verona, where `on any given day conversations are going on that can create companies or bring them down, give birth to amazing technologies or major flops', Clark writes.

Both men were `disenfranchised entrepreneurs', with Clark squeezed out of SGI and Andreessen squeezed out of the NCSA's venture to commercialise Mosaic. `I liked Marc intuitively and sensed that he was the kind of person needed for another startup,' Clark writes. `Marc had only one condition, not about what we ought to do, but what he adamantly didn't want to do: 'I'm finished with all that Mosaic s---.''By mid-March 94, Clark and Andreessen had developed a business and technology plan for a company that would bring Nintendo games online. As fate would have it, that plan never took off. Two weeks after a lacklustre meeting at Nintendo of America, the two men still found themselves with the drive to create something new but had no idea what it should be.

That was when Andreessen reversed himself. Over a second bottle of burgundy in the wee hours of a Thursday night, he told Clark, `Well, we could always build a Mosaic killer.'

They chose the ill-fated name Mosaic Communications (the company changed the name in November of the same year to avoid conflict with the NCSA), and Clark incorporated the company on April 4. They recruited most of the programmers that Andreessen had worked with at the NCSA and set up shop in Mountain View, California.

Clark writes: `In almost all of the cubicles, sleeping bags and pillows or beat-up couches offered evidence of life and work inextricably mixed, of catnaps grabbed during three- and four-day stints of code writing.'

By October, after only six months of development, Netscape had posted a beta version of Navigator on the Net, and by the spring of 1995, Web users had downloaded more than 6 million copies.

In the meantime, other brainstorms were raging that would complete the foundation that would support the growth of the Web.

Stanford graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo were developing the database that would become Yahoo; Jeff Bezos, a hedge fund manager, was concocting online bookstore Amazon.com, setting the standard for e-commerce; and Rob Glaser, a former Microsoft product manager who was interested in convergence, was busy establishing streaming media giant RealNetworks.

The browser, the search engine, the electronic retailer and the media player helped take the Web from the academic outback to the forefront of popular consciousness. Netscape, which had possibly the most dramatic rise of them all, has had perhaps the most ironic destiny. Last November it merged with onetime competitor America Online in an alliance with Clark's onetime workstation nemesis, Sun Microsystems.

Clark and Andreessen still maintain ties with Netscape, but each has gone on to new Web ventures. `Despite the craziness, or perhaps because of it, we had accomplished a tremendous amount in very little time,' Clark writes. `We had set a new standard for American industry. This defined the idea of 'Netscape time', which also became known as Internet time.'


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