Andreessen: Browser wars aren't coming back

At a favorite dim sum eatery off the posh University Avenue strip in Palo Alto, California, Internet visionary Marc Andreessen sat down Wednesday with IDG News Service to talk about his company, Loudcloud Inc., and the future of "utility" computing, in which enterprise customers pay for the hosting and management of their IT systems the same way they pay a power company for electricity.

The 30-year-old Silicon Valley transplant also had something to say about an unrelated topic that he should know something about -- the so-called browser wars.

Having joined in 1994 what would come to be Netscape Communications Corp. to help develop the first widely commercialized Web browser, Andreessen is credited with bringing the World Wide Web to the masses. In the process, he found himself part of a battle over market share against Microsoft Corp. and its competing Internet Explorer Web browser.

Microsoft won the war, and in 1999 Netscape was acquired by America Online Inc. Andreessen briefly went to work as chief technology officer for the Internet company, but three years later, Andreessen has left the browser wars behind him to focus on Loudcloud, based in Sunnyvale, California.

Meanwhile, AOL has signaled that it may try to reignite the browser battle. The company has ended a deal with Microsoft in which AOL agreed to use Internet Explorer as the browser for its AOL Internet service in exchange for having its software installed on Windows PCs. The company has also begun testing a Netscape browser in place of Internet Explorer on its AOL and CompuServe Internet services.

Some people are saying that the browser wars are reemerging.Andreessen: Do you believe it?

That's my question for you.

Andreessen: Well, let's see. Microsoft is up to what in browser market share? Ninety-three percent?

Well, do you think if AOL were able to distribute Netscape to its millions of Internet subscribers that it would revive the war?Andreessen: Internally at AOL, they don't think about browser market share. They think about getting AOL out to millions of people, so they'll do whatever is most expeditious in doing that. Now, if Microsoft cuts off Internet Explorer from them then, yeah, clearly they'll be able to switch to Netscape. They just don't have any internal motivation to get browser market share.

So then Netscape is basically its plan B?Andreessen: Yeah, I think so. When they originally did the acquisition, the big motivation around it was to be able to have a bargaining chip ... to get better terms. They could say, 'We own Netscape, and we're willing to use Internet Explorer, but if you don't give us distribution through the Windows desktop we're going to use Netscape and we're going to double its market share overnight and cause you guys lots of problems.' There's no internal goal at AOL, or at least when I was there, to go get browser market share.

What kind of a role do you think the browser plays these days?Andreessen: Good news, bad news. The bad news is the browser is kind of done. Essentially, nothing new has happened since it got adopted in the mainstream over the past four years. Microsoft releases a new version of Internet Explorer, and it's like, what exactly are the new features? There's probably three or four new features in there, but who cares? So that's the bad news.

The good news is, it's everywhere now. The concept is everywhere, the implementations are everywhere, everybody uses it, everybody understands the metaphor, and the shift in the architecture of computing around the browser is very serious. Ten years ago, client-server (computing) meant having to use a centralized database, and it meant that all the applications were distributed on fat clients, which meant they couldn't change very often. It meant applications were hard to use and it meant that they only could be really used by a limited number of people -- typically, your own employees. And so companies had no way of building applications that extended out to their customers and partners. The shift in the computing architecture when it went to a Web architecture was very serious, because now you've got a centralized distribution mechanism for applications. Put an application up on a central server or set of servers and anybody with a browser can access it, and it's easy to use. That's really a permanent swing in the industry.

And that's how Loudcloud has developed its software, right?Andreessen: Right. What we did when we started our company three years ago is we said, that shift (to Web-based application development) has happened, or is happening. People are going to be building Web applications for everything, which is basically what's happened.

What is the future of the browser? It would seem that the browser as we know it is too clunky for many new computing devices. Can you foresee what might take its place?Andreessen: The browser metaphor does not work on this (pointing to his cell phone) or this (his BlackBerry pager from Research in Motion Ltd.). You know what WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) stands for, it's the sound a WAP cell phone makes when you throw it in the wastebasket. It was a disaster, and it was because the browser metaphor didn't work on the cell phone. There are going to have to be new metaphors invented, new clients, new user interface models, but they've got to be suited to the device.

This is what (Apple Computer Inc. chief executive officer) Steve Jobs understands that a lot of people have trouble with: Form factor really counts. What shape it is, how far away from it you are when you use it, how big the screen is, whether it has a keyboard, whether it uses a stylus, those things determine how it gets used more than anything else, and you can't force the wrong metaphor on people.

That also means that convergence won't happen. It also means that convergence is exactly incorrect in almost all cases. Divergence is the future because these things are actually all different form factors.

Nine states and the District of Columbia, in their pursuit of tough antitrust remedies on Microsoft that go beyond what the company agreed to in its proposed settlement with the Department of Justice, have fought to force Microsoft to give away the code to Internet Explorer. If the judge approves that remedy proposal, do you see any benefit to users and developers?Andreessen: Generally, Microsoft is a partner of Loudcloud, and we work really well with them at Loudcloud because we support their technology and we have a bunch of customers running on Windows. So we don't take formal positions on remedies or lawsuits.

How about just the idea of having an open source browser, the Opera Web browser for instance. Is that beneficial to users or developers?Andreessen: How much (browser) market share does Opera have?

Let's pretend Opera has a 93 percent market share. Does it make a difference that its code is open source?Andreessen: (Pause). I don't think so. For mass market adoption (open source) is clearly not compelling yet or (Opera) would have more adoption than it does. Other things are more important. Bundling with the (operating system) is clearly more important for adoption. When you're competing against something that's both being (promoted) by a monopoly and is free, good luck competing, have fun.

My attitude is, everybody should try competing with Microsoft once in their life. Once.

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