Marc Andreessen, the man behind the wildly successful Web browser Netscape Navigator - who has been referred to as "the Bill Gates of the future" - was in Australia last week to speak at the Com Tech Open Systems Forum.
It's somehow fitting that Andreessen made his first trip Down Under to speak at an open systems event, as the importance of open standards deployment is a key element in his world view. Andreessen is clearly proud of Netscape's advocacy of open standards and sniffs - albeit nicely - at others in the computer industry who cling to proprietary protocols. To the 24-year-old Andreessen, that's not the way forward.
"Proprietary systems can't really be proprietary anymore," he said. "Customers don't want to be locked into a system that requires them to rip out everything they've done in the past. They don't want to be in proprietary messaging systems anymore. They don't want to be in proprietary information-sharing systems anymore. They've been there and done that and they're frustrated by it. There's a natural standardisation effect that takes place because customers demand that all software works together."
What's an example? "You see this when Microsoft gets forced into positions where it has to adopt Java when it otherwise wouldn't, because customers demand interoperability," he said. "Innovation's good for the customer. We adopt things other companies do; other companies adopt things we do."
Andreessen, who is Netscape's vice-president of technology and a co-founder of the company, says it is unlikely future applications will progress along the lines of e-mail-ie lots of separate, proprietary systems. "The Internet is a force against that type of fragmentation, because if the systems don't work together, nobody benefits. In fact, one of our big opportunities as a vendor is that we don't have a proprietary legacy, we can provide systems that are based on open systems and can interoperate with anything."
Andreessen speaks of a "new model" of open systems deployment for groupware that has become a reality for vendors - whether they like it or not. "Groupware systems have to support all the other standards. Lotus has recognised this with Notes. Microsoft hasn't yet, but they're going to have to. Novell has made some advances in this area," he said. "They're in competition among themselves for these full-featured monolithic environments. Then, there's this much more flexible, open systems-based technology that we and others are providing that offer more capabilities for less money." What does he see on the horizon? "The big losers are going to be whatever systems try to stay totally proprietary."
Speaking of new realities, Lotus has moved to make Notes more compatible with the Internet and Andreessen sees this as an example of the much-fabled win-win situation. "I think it's been positive for the industry and it's also been positive for us." Why? "Because inside a lot of companies there have been Notes 'advocates' who made the fairly sensitive political decision to run with Notes - and their careers have been tied to that decision. Those people need a way to transition to the new world without looking like they made the wrong decision a few years ago," he said. "And the fact that Lotus and IBM are opening up Notes with all the new standards means a lot of these advocates can make the jump without [losing face]. IBM has a pretty broad strategy to Internet-enable all of its products, and it opens up opportunities for us because all the systems work with what we do."
It is generally accepted that it was Andreessen who championed Netscape's daring give-it-away strategy. Pundits who criticised the company for making Navigator software available free of charge via the Internet were proved wrong last year when Netscape's initial public offering of stock generated tremendous interest: Netscape's first-day market capitalisation topped $US2 billion. The company is now valued at more than $US7 billion. Still, it's fair to ask if people are going to be prepared to pay for Navigator when they can get it for free. "So far they have!" he said. "We sell an awful lot to corporations. We sold more than 200,000 units through retail over Christmas. Every time AT&T sends up an Internet subscriber we get paid. Every time CompuServe sends up an Internet subscriber we get paid. The same with Prodigy and lots of others. We've found there's lots of ways to sell it."
What does Andreessen think of a related product like Novell's NetWare Directory Services (NDS)? "I think NDS is a great directory system. Unfortunately, it's not open, so you don't have access to the wire protocols. You can't create systems that interoperate very well. But there's been a product called LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) that we think is going to be the standard on the Internet for directory services. It's at the stage now where it looks like it's as powerful and as flexible as any proprietary system, yet has the advantage that it's interoperable. We're getting an early read from people like Novell that it's something they'll support."
Hitting the (suite) spot
According to Andreessen, Netscape has spent a lot of time talking to customers about what they want from Internet software. "Basic requirements that we're seeing include the need for a suite of servers for information-sharing groupware applications, e-mail communications and database access that work together," he said. "It [all needs to be] manageable via a consistent interface and use a consistent set of protocols." And wouldn't you just know it, Andreessen says Netscape has just the thing that's needed: a new product line called SuiteSpot, comprising six servers the company says will provide dramatically increased functionality.
How does he think the Internet will affect traditional ways of building applications? "I think it turns it upside down, because, for example, with client/server you basically took all the application logic from the mainframe and put it on the PC, but you weren't really able to take advantage of the networks," Andreessen said. "Now applications are getting built as a sort of blurring between applications and content on the server. So an application's just a page you go to and you download the content and the code as you need it. Applications can be spread much more across the entire network. Most of the existing systems and tools for building applications, especially in the client/server world, don't adapt real well to that. Our experience is that customers are really tired of a lot of the problems they've had with client/server systems in the last 10 years."