Innovator Andreessen is AOL’s Loss

Last week, just seven months after AOL bought his company, it was announced that Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen will step down from his post as America Online’s chief technology officer.

I wasn’t surprised.

Neither were many industry observers who only expressed surprise that the 28 year-old Andreessen hung in there as long as he did. The reason for his departure? Some analysts speculate that AOL’s single-minded goal of getting more people signed on to its number one online service clashed with the free-spirited Andreessen’s view of the Internet cosmos.

Sun Microsystems, Inc. chief strategy officer William Raduchel, 53, is the man that AOL anointed to fill Andreessen’s shoes. In a statement, AOL’s chief executive Steve Case embraced his new CTO by saying that “his impressive knowledge will help us pursue our strategic objections.”

Genius Versus Nuts-And-Bolts Manager

In corporate-speak, what AOL really means is that Raduchel’s management philosophy is more closely aligned with its somewhat linear vision of the online world: Let’s make more money by boosting membership.

But Andreessen has never been much of a nuts-and-bolts manager – any more than Mozart was a honky-tonk piano player. Andreessen could probably be classified as a genius, visionary or whatever other title describes someone who discovers something the world never knew existed.

Andreessen studied computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduating in 1993. When he began working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, he headed a team that began experimenting with a prototype of an Internet browser.

Meteoric Rise and Fall

At around this time, Jim Clark met Andreessen and convinced him that they could build a company around this new browser software. The rest is history.

When Netscape went public in August of 1995, it soared — becoming one of the hottest offerings that year. Investors in awe of discovering the Internet spurred the company on to even greater heights.

Soon, Netscape garnered 85 percent of the browser market, which also captured the attention of Microsoft Corp. Analysts point out that the software giant viewed the possibility of Internet-launched software as a direct attack on the Windows operating system.

This perception motivated Microsoft to develop its own Web browser, which it began giving away. The move soon killed Netscape’s paid market, setting the stage for AOL to gobble up the Mountain View, California-based company for $4.3 billion in November of 1998.

Still Working For AOL

AOL’s corporate line is that Andreessen will still be working part-time for the Dulles, Virginia-based company — helping them with technology issues. But everybody knows this is just a cute way to allow Andreessen to save face.

Nonetheless, the real loser in this scenario isn’t Andreessen, it’s AOL. Who knows what he might have discovered if AOL would have only given him more space and free rein? Sadly, corporations always seem to prefer nuts-and-bolts managers over visionaries.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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