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Bill's Bookshelf by Bill Rosenblatt

Summer reading

Easy beach reads on Netscape and Microsoft

August  1999
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Here are two books that can contribute to your lazy weekend afternoons at the beach: Jim Clark's autobiographical piece about Netscape, Netscape Time, and Gary Rivlin's The Plot to Get Bill Gates, his bemused look at the Microsoft mogul. (2,600 words)

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It's summertime, and the thoughts of city-dwellers like me turn to escaping the heat and humidity of the city on weekends to some quiet, relaxed, cool place, and to some low-voltage reading. Publishers are ready to oblige during this time of year with the usual roster of lightweight fluff that fills the New York Times Book Review's Summer Reading issue, and in turn, the LL Bean tote bags that accompany those fleeing the city to their weekend Xanadus. With that in mind, I plowed through two pieces of reading this past month that are ideal for weekend beach reading -- when you want to read something that's familiar yet entertaining. These books revisit oft-trodden territory from new perspectives.

Our first subject is Jim Clark, the cofounder of Netscape. His book Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up that Took On Microsoft, is his personal retelling of the saga of the browser company.

During the early days of the Internet, book reviewers like me had to slog through lots of breathless twaddle about how we're approaching the dawn of the new age of civilization. Now the Internet is here, and it's a fact of life. Did the world change in any fundamental way? It's hard to say, but there has been one significant change: now we have to slog through lots of breathless twaddle from people who talk about how they were there at the dawn of the new age of civilization.

Netscape Time is one such book. It starts with Clark's waning days as chairman of Silicon Graphics, when he was ousted by CEO Ed McCracken, who left him high and dry with "only" $10 million or so. He describes the historic meeting of Clark and Marc Andreessen, fresh out of the University of Illinois, at the Caffe Verona in Palo Alto -- Silicon Valley's ultimate power breakfast joint -- almost as if it were Stanley and Livingston meeting in the African jungle.

Netscape Time is interesting not so much for its telling of the story of Netscape but for the portrait it paints of Clark. Clark is highly opinionated, driven, and egotistical, yet quite introspective as well. He has nothing but ridicule and contempt for anyone who stood in the way of his success. He prides himself on being a simple country bumpkin from Texas who became the first Silicon Valley mogul to hit it big twice -- with SGI and Netscape. He has planes, boats, and other trappings of wealth. He brags about them all, and he relishes his role as the eminence grise who made his greasy young charges at Netscape rich and enabled them to trade their used Honda Civics in for BMWs and Porsches.

The most revealing parts of the book are those in which Clark rails against his foes. In addition to SGI's McCracken, Clark's two chief nemeses are Larry Smarr of the University of Illinois and, of course, Bill Gates.

Smarr campaign
The Smarr episodes constitute much of the material in the book that hasn't been covered elsewhere. When Andreessen and the other programmers developed the original Mosaic Web browser, they were working at the University of Illinois computer center. Because they were University employees (as well as students), their work was the University's property. When they graduated, they headed West to join Clark and form Mosaic Communications, the progenitor of Netscape. They wanted to develop a commercial browser, but they knew that the University would sue them if they used any elements from the browser they developed at Illinois. So they started from scratch and took pains to design and build the new Mosaic -- internally dubbed "Mozilla" for "Mosaic killer," but externally dubbed Netscape -- without using any of the old code.

Larry Smarr was the director of the University of Illinois computer center who tried to sue the new company anyway. As Clark points out, Smarr's proprietary attitude towards intellectual property differed sharply from that of Stanford, where Clark was on the faculty before founding SGI. Stanford actively encouraged alumni to take ideas developed at their alma mater and turn them into businesses. Stanford's payback would come in the form of prestige and donations from rich alums whose businesses did well. Illinois, on the other hand, wanted something more mundane and immediate: royalties.

As Clark portrays it, Smarr developed a bad case of sour grapes about losing Mosaic to the private sector. He licensed the Mosaic browser -- the original one that Andreessen and company had developed -- to Spyglass Corp., which in turn demanded that Clark and Andreessen's new company license the older technology. Clark all but called this blackmail and refused. Clark claims that he had tried to offer Smarr the kind of deal that his counterpart at Stanford might get, such as stock options and a seat on the board, but Smarr wasn't interested. First, Clark agreed to change the name of his company from Mosaic to Netscape Communications. That wasn't enough for Smarr; a protracted legal battle ensued between Netscape and the combination of the University and Spyglass.

Netscape won. Spyglass's business went steadily downhill, and it ended up selling its browser for a pittance to Microsoft, which used it to create Internet Explorer. The irony of this seems to have been lost on Jim Clark: the original browser, written by Marc Andreessen, Rob McCool, and the other Illinois programmers, ended up at the Evil Empire and became the weapon that nearly destroyed Netscape.

Clark also spends a lot of time in Netscape Time complaining about Microsoft. He goes on at length trying to make a distinction between being a tough business competitor and being dishonest, predatory, and monopolistic. I didn't find Clark very convincing: his distinctions are too subjective.

Much of the rest of Netscape Time consists of Clark's ruminations about money and power. He tries to describe the feeling that everyone got when Netscape did an IPO that exploded on its opening day. Nowadays, we take it almost for granted that every company with "dot com" in its name will go public and end its first trading day at $600 per share. Netscape was the first "Internet IPO," and Clark tries to capture the novelty of the entire experience, the way a Beatles biographer might try to capture the novelty of a rock band playing a sold-out baseball stadium for the first time. But Clark ends up drowning in a sea of hyperbole that, by now, is more tedious than enlightening.

Maybe I'm being unfair. But the story of Netscape is one that we've heard often enough by now: a bunch of young hackers toil day and night, never bathe or change clothes, eat lots of pizza and drink lots of caffeinated beverages, release an amazingly popular product against all odds, go public, and become megazillionaires. That's the way Netscape was portrayed in one of last summer's pieces of beach reading, Speeding the Net, by journalists Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla (reviewed in Bill's Bookshelf, July 1998). Speeding the Net cast the story of Marc Andreessen's happy hackers from Illinois as a mythological warrior-coming-of-age story, which even then was a cliche.


Plot against Bill
Our other book for this month, Gary Rivlin's The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man ... and the People Who Hate Him, treats Andreessen's rapid rise to fame and fortune as undeserved hype generated by journalists -- like Quittner and Slatalla, presumably -- who knew a good Horatio Alger-like story when they saw one. (Andreessen was a simple country bumpkin from Wisconsin...) Andreessen is one of an entire cast of characters profiled by Rivlin in his book.

Gary Rivlin is a journalist who is new to the technology world; his previous books have been about city politics in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area in California. The Plot to Get Bill Gates is the latest burden on the groaning board that holds up the collection of writings about Gates. The book is highly entertaining and most worthwhile -- if you haven't read any of the other dozen-plus Gates or Microsoft books.

This book is overlong and unfocused; it tries to accomplish too many things at once. First, it tells the story of Bill Gates's life and career with Microsoft. Second, it talks about things like how rich Gates is, how the media has reacted to his riches, and how many Web sites there are that say nasty things about Gates and Microsoft (this presumably is the "irreverent" part).

Gates hate
Third, the book profiles the many leaders of the computing industry who have crossed paths or swords with Gates over the years. This is by far the most valuable part. Rivlin gives us juicy information about several luminaries who might not merit books of their own. These include well-known characters like Larry Ellison of Oracle, Marc Andreessen of Netscape, Ray Noorda of Novell, Scott McNealy of Sun, and Philippe Kahn, the founder of Borland (of Turbo Pascal fame) who ended up ousted from his own company. To top it off, there's a chapter that centers on consumer activist Ralph Nader, who tried to take on Microsoft in the mid-'90s before the US Justice Dept. launched a more high-profile attack.

There's also some interesting information about lesser-known figures who played important roles in anti-Microsoft initiatives. There are two chapters about Sun, which feature not only McNealy but also some of the key engineers who worked on the Java language, like James Gosling and Patrick Naughton. A chapter on Silicon Valley venture capitalists focuses on Ted Schlein, the head of the Java Fund. The Java Fund is a $100 million fund set up by Kleiner Perkins, the Valley's most important venture firm, with money from Netscape, Oracle, IBM, Sun, and others (the so-called NOISE coalition). Rivlin followed Schlein around for a few days and got to listen in while a couple of startups made their pitches. (He neglected to pick up on one piece of trivia that he would have found amusing: one of the pitchers was Alex Zohglin, whose claim to fame was being on the Mosaic browser team at the University of Illinois and turning down Marc Andreessen's offer to move to California and join the company he and Jim Clark had just formed.)

The chapters on Sun, Oracle, IBM, and Novell are also quite interesting and highly amusing. When discussing Larry Ellison, Rivlin echoes Mike Wilson's The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison (reviewed in Bill's Bookshelf, June 1999) in emphasizing Ellison's insatiable desire for publicity and overpowering envy of Bill Gates. As Rivlin puts it, try as Ellison might, he always ends up number two -- even on the list of all-time worst one-day stock price drops.

The revelations in this book about Sun's Java are also fascinating. As some people know, Java started out as a language intended for programming interactive TV set-top boxes. It was part of a project at Sun called First Person, which was started in the early '90s when interactive TV was all the rage and Sun had just lost to SGI in a bid to supply technology to Time Warner's lamented interactive TV trials in Orlando, FL. But what Rivlin reveals is the tribulations that many key technologists went through before Java burst out into the market.

James Gosling, the Sun programming genius who invented much of the language, despaired of finding a home within Sun for the technology. He interviewed for a job at Microsoft and came back completely disgusted. The rest of the programmers hung out in an office in downtown Palo Alto, doing nothing but playing pinball and commiserating over Sun executives who refused to fund the technology. One of them, Patrick Naughton (now a senior executive at Infoseek) almost quit to join the Evil Empire. According to him, his exit interview with McNealy was the catalyst that finally got Java the corporate muscle it needed.

Another revelation in this book answers a question I have always had about Java. Sun is in some ways the ultimate Silicon Valley techie paradise; it has a history of technology that sells well despite truly mediocre marketing and laughable attempts to reach out past the techie community to corporate executives and other nontechie audiences. How did Sun strike gold with Java, vaulting it from a decent programming language to the most heavily hyped technology since the Internet itself? Did some marketing droid within Sun show unexpected talent and do this ... or was it just luck?

According to Rivlin, it was a combination of two things. First was the idea of hyping Java as a technological paradigm shift. That came from the noted techno-futurist George Gilder. Second was Java's attractiveness as an antidote to Microsoft, which was another story that appealed to the mass media. In other words, the high public profile and success of Java as much more than a programming language was due to no one at Sun.

But apart from those revelations, and a few others, Rivlin's book is something of a sprawling mess. He spends far too much time revisiting oft-told tales about Gates and his wealth, and quoting from other books on the subject. Hiding inside The Plot to Get Bill Gates's 350 pages is a cogent, 200-page book about the various companies that have tried to alternately compete against or do deals with Microsoft, and individuals who have railed against Gates in public, on Web sites, or in semiprivate venues like Stewart Alsop's ultra-exclusive Agenda conference. You can buy this book, take it to the beach this summer, and skip your way through it to get to the good parts. Rivlin's writing style is zippy and colorful.

[ Books] Title: Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Took on Microsoft
Author: Jim Clark with Owen Edwards
Publisher: St. Martins Press
ISBN: 0312199341
List price: $24.95

Title: The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man ... and the People Who Hate Him
Author: Gary Rivlin
Publisher: Times Books
ISBN: 0812930061
List price: $25.00

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About the author
[Bill Rosenblatt's photo] Bill Rosenblatt is vice president of technology and new media for publication services at The McGraw-Hill Companies.

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