Jim Clark, with Owen Edwards
St. Martin's Griffith, New York, 2000 (2000)
276 pages, including index
My first technical job was providing support for Netscape, so I must admit I am partial to the company. I did not work directly for them, but rather for another company (DecisionOne) to which they had outsourced their support operations, but I still remember the sense of excitement to this day. We were all permanently pumped up, cheerful and eager to support their products. After all, Netscape was cool. It was the company that spurred the whole Internet revolution by bringing the Web to the masses. Since Marc Andreessen and company built capabilities to display graphics into their easy to use application, almost everyone and their mother started using the Web. On top of that, my group of co-workers included quite a few bright young guys who truly enjoyed hacking and learning about the internals of software applications and operating systems. So, it was with some devotion that I picked up this book to read about the origins of the company and that mythical figure, Jim Clark, who had founded not only Netscape but also a couple of other successful companies (Silicon Graphics and Healtheon).
As it could be expected, Netscape Time is a trip back to the
wild 1990s, when the hopes in the so-called new economy could still
lead someone to argue that
Oh, well. Time to wake up.
This is not to say that "irrational exuberance" is all we can find in this
book, for together with the clearest example of "new economy" business
strategy ("market share counted far more than profits in the early stages
of a company's development", in page 4), we also have some insights into
how Silicon Valley worked during the "boom years":
The thing I understood (...) was that high technology isn't about software or hardware, but about brains and people. Spyglass had Mosaic, but Netscape had imagination and IQ in the form of the people who had written the program they were selling. In trying to leverage the "Mosaic problem" against us, [Douglas Colbeth, from the University of Illinois] was drastically overestimating the value of proprietary implementation.He portraits the software developer as some sort of legendary figure, the hero of a new revolution that came to change our lifestyles:
In almost all of the cubicles, sleeping bags and pillows or beat-up couches offered evidence of life and work inextricably mixed, of catnaps grabbed during three- and four-day stints of code writing. (...) Programmers are the shock troops of a software start-up. Abundant energy, a reckless disregard for their own well-being, and an underdeveloped notion of what it is to live a full life are considerable strengths. As a result, many programmers simply go on living and working the way they had as computer science students, pulling all-nighters, cramming, and letting off steam with pranks, obsessive hobbies, or, in Netscape's case, wild games of indoor "chair football" or roller hockey in the parking lot.
Back in the 1980s, Jim Clark had founded Silicon Graphics, the computer hardware company that specialized in 3-D graphics workstations and went on to become the favorite of special effects studios around the world. It was an exciting and innovative product, but Clark was clearly disillusioned with the whole experience by the mid-1990s:
SGI, perhaps now destined for a minor status in the computer business, was a fine company that fell victim to a management attached to a comfortable, profitable niche that seemed secure if one didn't look too far into the future. (...) But the average price of SGI's dazzling machines was in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. In contrast, Sun Microsystems was producing graphics workstations for $15,000 to $20,000. They were inferior in graphics, but they were cheaper. And increasingly powerful PCs were selling for under $5,000. (...) The market doesn't invariably reward excellence when budgets are a factor, however, whether it's corporate or individual money at stake. We sold our excellent machines at high profit margins, but the actual number sold was small.
And to all those who are fond of using the Rolls-Royce example, Jim Clark reminds them that "for years, Rolls-Royce made one of the best cars in the world. Now Rolls-Royce, the chariot of the gods, has been bought by Volkswagen, maker of "the people's car"." (page 26). The case is that, for one reason or another, Clark's attempts to penetrate low-end markets using SGI's advantage in the graphics market didn't pan out. Nintendo did build its machines on the MIPS processor, but a project to build an interactive television set together with Time Warner ended in disaster. By the early 1990s, Ed McCracken, a more middle-of-the-road manager, was in charge of the company and was ready to bet the ranch in their niche hoping that their big margins would never go away... and Jim Clark moved on.
It is also interesting to learn how Netscape was born pretty much by accident. One would expect a different explanation of the events from someone as self-absorbed as Jim Clark. Perhaps a story that would make him the center of the attention and final inspiration of the whole venture. However, he does not have any problem acknowledging that, once he had made up his mind to leave SGI, it was an acquaintance (Bill Foss) who introduced him to Marc Andreessen. Even more to the point, the first ideas they tossed about had absolutely nothing to do with a Web browser. They even considered to start up a company that would only sell Nintendo games over the Internet. But in the end, more by default than anything else, they decided to build a company around the idea of a Web browser. After all, that is what Andreessen knew most about. Most of the rest of the book talks about the initial days of the new company, the operation to raise some money without letting the venture capitalists completely take over the project, the legal troubles they had to face when the NCSA accused them of stealing the intellectual property from their Mosaic browser, etc. As one could expect, the initial days of the new company were marked by some exhilaration and around the clock programming work that would later come to characterize most other Internet start-ups. I could not avoid the feeling that the whole image of the "hero" programmer sleeping under the desk and interrupting his bursts of creativity with moments of crazy goofing around are highly romanticized, but it is in this sense no different than what one can find in many other similar books.
After all the initial exhilaration though, reality sunk in. Clark had no choice but to resort to the feared venture capitalists in order to raise some money after he had burnt all his savings. He learnt the lesson from SGI though, and this time around took care to make sure that those who founded the company and truly had the creative genius kept the bigger stake. Another lesson he learnt from his previous stint at the helm of a large corporation was about his own limitations when it came to managing a business. This time around though, instead of hiring a non-imaginative bureaucrat like Ed McCracken, he decided to bet on Jim Barksdale, of FedEx fame. The dream was not meant to last. Microsoft soon realized there was some money to be made in the Internet and, even more important, that the new technology had the potential to destroy its own desktop-centered business if it did not act quick. Clark tells us how Bill Gates tried to convince them to license Netscape Navigator to them for peanuts and, when they refused, simply decided to push them out of business by bundling his own browser (based on the succesor to the old Mosaic, now called Spyglass) with their operating system and manipulating the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) without documenting them to break the competitor's applications.
Altogether, the book makes an interesting read for anyone who wants to learn about Silicon Valley and the startup businesses during the dot-com frenzy, or about the crazy young turks who started it all with the Netscape Navigator browser. Anybody who cares about the software or technology business can get something from this book.
Entertainment factor: 5/10