Marc Andreessen is a brilliant guy. His Mosaic browser, which eventually morphed into Netscape, introduced us all to the concept of surfing and ushered in the Internet as we know it. His new way of looking at online services — which seems ho-hum today but was radically transformational 15 years ago — freed us forever from the tyranny of arcane, unfortunately named services like Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Gopher. In taking Netscape public, he set the stage for dot.com-era IPOs that created countless tech billionaires-as-rock-stars and defined an era when technology’s potential was seemingly limitless. Let’s call him brilliant and visionary, then.
However, even geniuses have their bad days…sometimes, they have many. Netscape was eventually wiped off the relevance map when Microsoft finally woke up to the Internet reality and paved over the landscape with Internet Explorer. The Internet bubble burst as the perverse logic that drove much of it — eyeballs, “stickiness,” and the ridiculous notion that bricks-and-mortar were headed for permanent and complete obsolescence — was finally and thankfully replaced by the old rules of business that dictated you needed to generate revenue, and that revenue needed to exceed your costs.
Succeeding despite adversity
Still, Mr. Andreessen has always managed to come out on top. At the height of the industry’s headiness, he sold Netscape to AOL for .2 billion and hung around for a bit as AOL’s CTO. Later, he went on to establish Loudcloud and eventually sold it, as Opsware, to HP for .6 billion. Last month, he and Ben Horowitz founded a new venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, and targeted its first 0 million fund at tech entrepreneurs. Let there be no doubt that Andreessen is Silicon Valley royalty.
One of the fund’s first beneficiaries is RockMelt, a startup that plans to release a new browser. The company isn’t saying much (yet) but it promises the new browser won’t be derived from any existing technology. Instead, it’ll be built entirely from scratch. In the era of Web 2.0 and increasingly dynamic and interactive online services, a browser based on modern principles and optimized for this environment is definitely a good thing. The real question is whether the world needs a new social media-aware browser. Or even cares. After all, it’s not like Flock has set the world on fire.
As I stare at my machine (a typical laptop running a typical OS and a typical array of productivity and connectivity applications), I realize I’ve got more ways to surf the net than any one person really needs. My list of installed browsers includes Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. I certainly don’t need them all, but since they’re free and since some sites tend to work better in some than in others — Chrome, for instance, does funny things to some of my blog posts, while Firefox plays nice — I feel better keeping them all around, just in case.
Clinging to yesterday’s thinking
And when RockMelt goes live, I’ll probably download and install it, too, because it’ll also be free, and my hard drive’s big enough to handle as many browsers and plug-ins as I could ever hope to have. But just because I can and will doesn’t mean it’ll ever make money. And there’s the rub: I fear Mr. Andreessen is chasing yesterday’s dream — namely recapturing the browser-based glory he knew when Netscape was the Internet for most of us — while the rest of the online world long ago moved on.
Oh sure, alternative browsers are alive and well. Mozilla’s Firefox has hacked out an incredibly respectable 20% global usage share, and challenged the old assumption that no one could beat Internet Explorer because it came installed on every Windows PC. Firefox proved that if you built it, and built it well, savvy users would take the time to make the switch. Google’s Chrome proved the need to return to our Internet roots with a small, light, blazingly fast browser that dispensed with the bloat that had gradually converted the average browser from a climbing-the-stairs-victoriously Rocky into the equivalent of a long-retired, unshaven, pot-bellied, dog-slow, has-been “Rocky VI.”
So, yes, the world needs better browsers today. And will continue to need them tomorrow. But, sadly for Mr. Andreessen, we no longer need to add another name to the list of browser vendors fighting for our desktop loyalty. The big boys already have it covered, and with each successive update, are finding ways to deliver greater Web 2.0-era functionality with less bloat and less instability.
I’m not certain I understand how RockMelt plans to carve out a business model by slicing the browser market even more thinly and hoping advertisers come along for the ride. Notably, Mr. Andreessen sits on both Facebook’s and eBay’s boards of directors. No doubt he’s imagining some kind of connection that would allow RockMelt to improve the user experience for social media and other interactive services. But until we all decide our current browsers are patently unable to get the job done — something I’m just not seeing — it’s difficult to imagine IE and Firefox users running for the exits.
We need more than browsers
We no longer lack the tools to explore the Internet at a basic level. I’m sure I’m not the only one who questions how a me-too product is going to improve our collective online capability. Geeks may appreciate the fresh technology under the hood, but attributes like that hardly matter to the vast majority of consumer and business users who wouldn’t even know or care what browser they’re using. For them, good enough has always been good enough, and only a new category of software, beyond the browser will justify any differential mindshare. And revenue.
RockMelt answers a question no one’s been asking for much of the last decade, and would have been much better off looking beyond the browser to an entirely new way of experiencing online services. Mr. Andreessen’s always done extraordinarily well with the new, the different and the radical. As he looks for other places to invest his 0 million, I humbly suggest he keep that in mind.
Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.