04.24.2012 07:35 PM
The Man Who Makes the Future: Wired Icon Marc Andreessen
He invented the browser. He was first to the cloud. Now Marc Andreessen is the most influential VC in Silicon Valley.
Photo: Nigel Parry
He's not a household name like Gates, Jobs, or Zuckerberg. His face isn't known to millions. But during his remarkable 20-year career, no one has done more than Marc Andreessen to change the way we communicate. At 22, he invented Mosaic, the first graphical web browser—an innovation that is perhaps more responsible than any other for popularizing the Internet and bringing it into hundreds of millions of homes. He cofounded Netscape and took it public in a massive (for that time) stock offering that helped catalyze the dotcom boom. He started Loudcloud, a visionary service to bring cloud computing to business clients. And more recently, as a venture capitalist, he has backed an astonishing array of web 2.0 companies, from Twitter to Skype to Groupon to Instagram to Airbnb.
As Wired prepares for its 20th anniversary issue in January 2013, we are launching a series called Wired Icons: in-depth interviews with our biggest heroes, the tenacious pioneers who built digital culture and evangelized it to the world over the past two decades. There's not a more fitting choice for our first icon than Andreessen—a man whose career, which almost exactly spans the history of our magazine, is a lesson in how to spot the future. In an interview at Andreessen's office in Palo Alto, California, Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson talked with him about technological transformation, and about the five big ideas that Andreessen had before everyone else.
1992: Everyone Will Have the Web
As a 22-year-old undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Andreessen developed Mosaic, the first graphical browser for the World Wide Web, then brought the technology to Silicon Valley and cofounded Netscape. By August 1995, Netscape had gone public and was worth $2.9 billion.
Chris Anderson: At 22, you're a random kid from small-town Wisconsin, working at a supercomputer center at the University of Illinois. How were you able to see the future of the web so clearly?
Marc Andreessen: It was probably the juxtaposition of the two—being from a small town and having access to a supercomputer. Where I grew up, we had the three TV networks, maybe two radio stations, no cable TV. We still had a long-distance party line in our neighborhood, so you could listen to all your neighbors' phone calls. We had a very small public library, and the nearest bookstore was an hour away. So I came from an environment where I was starved for information, starved for connection.
Anderson: And then at Illinois, you found the Internet.
Andreessen: Right, which could make information so abundant. The future was much easier to see if you were on a college campus. Remember, it was feast or famine in those days. Trying to do dialup was miserable. If you were a trained computer scientist and you put in a tremendous amount of effort, you could do it: You could go get a Netcom account, you could set up your own TCP/IP stack, you could get a 2,400-baud modem. But at the university, you were on the Internet in a way that was actually very modern even by today's standards. At the time, we had a T3 line—45 megabits, which is actually still considered broadband. Sure, that was for the entire campus, and it cost them $35,000 a month! But we had an actual broadband experience. And it convinced me that everybody was going to want to be connected, to have that experience for themselves.
Anderson: But the notion that everyday consumers would want it over dialup—that was pretty radical.
Andreessen: True. At the time, there were four presumptions made against dialup Internet access, and after Mosaic took off I could see that they were all wrong. The first presumption was that dialup flat-out wouldn't work.
Anderson: That it would always be too slow, too clunky.
Andreessen: Right. The second presumption was that it was too expensive—and that it would always stay as expensive as it was. The third presumption was that people wouldn't be smart enough to figure out how to get it working at home. But the most interesting presumption was the fourth one: that consumers wouldn't want it, that they wouldn't know what to do with it.
Anderson: Your big idea, really, was that they would want it—and they'd eventually get it.
Andreessen: Yeah. It was essentially knocking through all four of those assumptions. I thought it was obvious that everyone would want this and that they would be able to do lots of things with it. And I thought it was obvious that the technology would advance to a point where you wouldn't need a computer science degree to do it.
Anderson: Which was the one problem you could do something about.
Andreessen: Well, actually, I think that Mosaic helped address a few of the problems at once. It did make the Internet much easier to use. But making it easier to use also made it more apparent how to use it, all the different things that people could do with it—which then made people want it more. And it's also clear that we helped drive faster bandwidth: By creating the demand, we helped increase the supply.
Anderson: I remember the first time I interviewed you, back in 1995 when I was at The Economist. I thought we were going to talk about, you know, TCP/IP and HTTP. But you wanted to talk about globalization, about international trade. You were already thinking about the Internet in macroeconomic terms. Have you always seen the world that way, or was there an awakening somewhere in the process?
Andreessen: The awakening probably happened for me during that period. Once you understand that everybody's going to get connected, a lot of things follow from that. If everybody gets the Internet, they end up with a browser, so they look at web pages—but they can also leave comments, create web pages. They can even host their own server! So not only is everybody consuming, they can also produce. And once you get instantaneous communication with everybody, you have economic activity that's far more advanced, far more liquid, far more distributed than ever before.
Anderson: Looking back on the browser after 20 years, what are the biggest surprises? What did you not expect?
Andreessen: Number one, that it worked. The big turning point for me was when Mosaic worked. I was like, wait a minute, you can actually change the world!
Anderson: But you got that surprise early on. Mosaic was a huge success within 12 months.
Andreessen: Yeah, that's true. But the second surprise is that it has kept working. Notwithstanding certain cover stories in certain magazines, I think the browser is as relevant today as it's ever been.
1995: The Browser Will Be the Operating System
During the browser wars with Microsoft, when Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer vied for domination on the PC desktop, Andreessen prophesied a future where computers would dispense with feature-heavy operating systems entirely. Instead, we would use a browser to run programs over the network. Netscape lost its battle with Microsoft, but in key respects Andreessen's vision has come to pass. Google Chrome OS, for example, is a fully browser-based operating system, while most of our favorite applications, from email to social networks, now live entirely on the network.
Anderson (left) and Andreessen in Palo Alto in January 2012. Photo: Nigel Parry
Anderson: A quote of yours that I've always loved is that Netscape would render Windows "a poorly debugged set of device drivers."
Andreessen: In fairness, you have to give credit for that quote to Bob Metcalfe, the 3Com founder.
Anderson: Oh, it wasn't you? It's always attributed to you.
Andreessen: I used to say it, but it was a retweet on my part. [Laughs.] But yes, the idea we had then, which seems obvious today, was to lift the computing off of each user's device and perform it in the network instead. It's something I think is inherent in the technology—what some thinkers refer to as the "technological imperative." It's as if the technology wants it to happen.
Anderson: As in Stewart Brand's famous formulation that "information wants to be free."
Andreessen: Right. Technology is like water; it wants to find its level. So if you hook up your computer to a billion other computers, it just makes sense that a tremendous share of the resources you want to use—not only text or media but processing power too—will be located remotely. People tend to think of the web as a way to get information or perhaps as a place to carry out ecommerce. But really, the web is about accessing applications. Think of each website as an application, and every single click, every single interaction with that site, is an opportunity to be on the very latest version of that application. Once you start thinking in terms of networks, it just doesn't make much sense to prefer local apps, with downloadable, installable code that needs to be constantly updated.
"We could have built a social element into Mosaic. But back then the Internet was all about anonymity."Anderson: Assuming you have enough bandwidth.
Andreessen: That's the very big if in this equation. If you have infinite network bandwidth, if you have an infinitely fast network, then this is what the technology wants. But we're not yet in a world of infinite speed, so that's why we have mobile apps and PC and Mac software on laptops and phones. That's why there are still Xbox games on discs. That's why everything isn't in the cloud. But eventually the technology wants it all to be up there.
Anderson: Back in 1995, Netscape began pursuing this vision by enabling the browser to do more.
Anderson: Unlike with Mosaic, where your original ideas were proven correct within a year, it seems like this idea has taken 15 years to come to fruition.
Andreessen: Right. And only with the arrival of tablets and smartphones, really. If you draw a pie chart of all the personal computing devices in use, smartphones and tablets are now over 50 percent and growing rapidly. It took a lot longer than we expected, but these really are the network computers. Now, in an ironic twist of fate, the devices do have all these local apps ...
Anderson: Well, exactly.
Andreessen: ... but I can go on an iPad or an Android smartphone or a Linux tablet and I can access all the same websites and all the same applications and all the same services that I get on my desktop.
Anderson: But we do still have lots of desktops and laptops out there. Let me ask you in 2012: Do you still think that the web and browsers will render computer operating systems a "poorly debugged set of device drivers"?
Andreessen: I will pull a full Henry Kissinger and answer a different question. The application model of the future is the web application model. The apps will live on the web. Mobile apps on platforms like iOS and Android are a temporary step along the way toward the full mobile web. Now, that temporary step may last for a very long time. Because the networks are still limited. But if you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model. Because the technology wants it to work that way.
1999: Web Businesses Will Live in the Cloud
In September 1999, Andreessen cofounded Loudcloud, a firm that would enable whole businesses to move into the cloud; it would host and manage their web services and software so that companies wouldn't need to run any servers at all. That business didn't last—despite an IPO in 2001, Loudcloud changed its name and business model in 2002 and was sold to Hewlett-Packard in 2007. But its vision has been vindicated in the phenomenal rise of Amazon Web Services, which serves as the backbone for hundreds of thousands of businesses online.
Andreessen on the cover of Time in 1996. Courtesy of: Time Magazine
Anderson: With the name Loudcloud, did you make the first use of the word cloud in this context—as a place where applications run on the network?
Andreessen: It was a common term in the telecom business. AT&T used it to talk about their Centrex service, which—going way back here—took all the hassles of switching phone calls out of the individual enterprise and turned it into a service. So our idea with Loudcloud was to offer a similar proposition, but for software. When we first announced it, I described it as Silicon Valley Power & Light.
Anderson: Tech companies would use it as a utility.
Andreessen: Exactly: the software power grid. We actually used the electrical metaphor more than the telecom metaphor. When electricity first came to factories, every factory had its own generator. But eventually that didn't make any sense, because everyone could draw electricity off the grid. At the height of the first dotcom boom, we saw the exact same thing happening in Silicon Valley. You'd raise $20 million of venture capital, and then you'd have to turn around and write $5 million checks to Oracle, Sun, EMC, and Cisco just to build out your server farm. It was literally like everybody building their own electrical generator over and over again.
Anderson: You were the first company to provide software as a service.
Andreessen: I would say we were the first cloud provider in the modern sense of the term. Our pitch was, you should be able to buy all this software by the drink, instead of having to shell out for the bottle up front. By capitalizing on economies of scale, Loudcloud could provide higher levels of service than you could get in-house, and a startup could get its product to market almost instantaneously. It could spend its time and energy building the actual product instead of trying to figure out how to host it and keep it live. That was the pitch.
Anderson: It didn't really work.
Andreessen: Well, it worked beautifully right up to the point when all the startups went bankrupt, and then all our big clients decided they didn't have to worry about competing with the startups anymore. After that, it went completely sideways. Literally every other company we were competing with went bankrupt; we were the only one that got through it. So we just went back to basics and we said, OK, we couldn't make it work as a service provider, but we think we can make it work as a software company, selling the back-end software to manage big networks of servers. We changed our name to Opsware. That ultimately worked, as a business.
Anderson: You were acquired by HP for $1.6 billion.
Andreessen: That whole transition happened during an unfun time in the tech economy. Everybody went through a crisis of confidence between 2002 and 2006. Up and down Sand Hill Road, VCs would refuse to fund consumer Internet companies, because it had been decided that those simply weren't going to work.
Anderson: Looking back, it's somewhat ironic that you started with the right name, Loudcloud, but abandoned it. Now the world has come back to cloud. What did it take?
Andreessen: In retrospect, we were five or six years too early. Besides the rebound in the startup economy, there have also been two huge developments in server technology. The first is commoditization: We were running on expensive Sun servers, but now you can buy Linux servers at a fraction of the cost. The second is virtualization, which makes managing the servers and apportioning services to clients far easier than was possible back in 1999. And that's why Amazon's cloud service has been so magical. It's the same core concept—but with supercheap hardware, which makes the economics far more attractive for everybody, and with virtualization, which makes the entire environment far more adaptable.
2004: Everything Will Be Social
In 2004, when very few consumer Internet companies were getting funded, Andreessen cofounded Ning, a service to let groups of people create their own social apps. It was a modest success, but "social" has become just as ubiquitous as he predicted—increasingly, what we buy, what we listen to, even our search results are influenced by our friends' tastes and choices. And most of the successful startups in this arena, from Facebook to Groupon to Instagram, have Andreessen as an investor or board member.
Andreessen on the cover of Wired in 2000.
Anderson: Your bet on Ning hasn't paid off as handsomely as your previous two companies did, but you did bet correctly on a future where social would be knit into everything. What was your thinking around that venture?
Andreessen: In the 1990s, lots of people talked about Moore's law, which predicts that processing speed will increase exponentially, and Metcalfe's law, which holds that a network gets exponentially more valuable as nodes are added. But I was also fascinated with Reed's law. That's a mathematical property about the forming of groups—for any group of size n, the number of subgroups that can be assembled is 2n.
Anderson: So the bigger the network gets, the more subnetworks that will want to organize themselves—a richer and more varied set of social groups.
Andreessen: We see this playing out in retail, where ecommerce is becoming a group activity. Long before Ning, actually, in 1999, I invested in a company called Mobshop, which was Reed's law applied to commerce, through group sales. It didn't work back then. But 10 years later, I invested in Groupon, because I could see it was the same idea—finding, on the fly, a group of people who want the same product and using their massive numbers to command steep discounts. The Internet lets you aggregate groups in a way that was never previously possible.
Anderson: What changed between 1999 and 2009 that made Groupon—and Facebook, and all these other profitable consumer Internet companies—possible?
Andreessen: A big part of it was broadband. Ironically, it was during the nuclear winter, from 2000 to 2005, that broadband happened. DSL got built out, cable modems got built out. So then you started to have 100, 200, 300 million people worldwide on broadband. Also, the international market started to really open up: China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey. Still, though, starting a new consumer Internet company in 2004 was a radical act. [Laughs.]
Anderson: As I recall, your initial concept for Ning was to let groups create their own Craigslists, effectively—trusted marketplaces.
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Andreessen: Yeah, at the time we had this concept of "social apps." Friendster hadn't worked, MySpace was just getting a little bit of traction, and Facebook was still at Harvard. What we knew worked were focused applications: Craigslist, eBay, Monster. So our idea was to bring social into these domains, in the form of apps that groups could run for themselves: their own job boards, their own selling marketplaces, and so on. Then later we sort of abstracted that up into the idea of building your own social network.
Anderson: In retrospect, it seems like social is another dimension of the Internet that was there from the beginning—as if the technology wanted it to happen.
Andreessen: I often wonder if we should have built social into the browser from the start. The idea that you want to be connected with your friends, your social circle, the people you work with—we could have built that into Mosaic. But at the time, the culture on the Internet revolved around anonymity and pseudonyms.
Anderson: You built in cookies so that sites could remember each user.
Andreessen: But we didn't build in the concept of identity. I think that might have freaked people out.
Anderson: It might still.
Andreessen: Yeah, I'm not sure at the time people were ready for it. I don't think it was an accident that it took, you know, 13 or 14 years after we introduced the browser for people to say, "I want my identity to be a standard part of this."
Anderson: And it took Mark Zuckerberg to figure out how to make it pay off.
Andreessen: It was really a generational shift—a group of young entrepreneurs, including Andrew Mason and Mark Zuckerberg, who weren't burned by the dotcom boom and bust. I came to Ning with all these psychic scars. They just looked at the Internet and said, "This stuff is really cool, and we want to build something new."
Anderson: No cynicism.
Andreessen: One of the first times Zuckerberg and I got together, in 2005 or 2006, he stopped me in the middle of conversation and asked: "What did Netscape do?" And I said, "What do you mean, what did Netscape do?" And he was like, "Dude, I was in junior high. I wasn't paying attention."
Anderson: How big can Facebook get?
Andreessen: We don't really know. The Internet is still the Wild West. Eight years ago, Facebook was just a gleam in a Harvard sophomore's eye. It is still possible to build these things from scratch. So I can't tell you what the top five platforms are going to be even five years from now. I'm pretty s ure that Facebook, Apple, and Google will be on that list. But I don't know what the other two will be. Maybe Microsoft comes roaring back with Windows Phone. Maybe Twitter evolves and gets to scale. HP is planning to open source its WebOS—maybe it's that! Or maybe it's something we haven't even heard of, a company that's just getting funded right now.
2009: Software Will Eat the World
In 2009, Andreessen and his longtime business partner, Loudcloud cofounder Ben Horowitz, created a venture capital firm called Andreessen Horowitz. Their vision today: an economy transformed by the rise of computing. Andreessen believes that enormous technology companies can now be built around the use of hyperintelligent software to revolutionize whole sectors of the economy, from retail to real estate to health care.
Photo: Nigel Parry
Anderson: Take us back to when you were forming Andreessen Horowitz. You'd been an investor for some time already, but now you decided to formalize it. So what was the guiding philosophy?
Andreessen: Our vision was to be a throwback: a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. We were going to be a single-office firm, focusing primarily on companies in the US and then, within that, primarily companies in Silicon Valley. And—this is the crucial thing—we're only going to invest in companies based on computer science, no matter what sector their business is in. We are looking to invest in what we call primary technology companies.
Anderson: Give me an example.
Andreessen: Airbnb—the startup that lets you rent out your home or a room in your home. Ten years ago you would never have said you could build Airbnb, which is looking to transform real estate with a new primary technology. But now the market's big enough.
Anderson: I guess I'm struggling a little bit with "primary technology." How does Airbnb qualify?
Andreessen: Airbnb makes its money in real estate. But everything inside of how Airbnb runs has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. What makes Airbnb function is its software engine, which matches customers to properties, sets prices, flags potential problems. It's a tech company—a company where, if the developers all quit tomorrow, you'd have to shut the company down. To us, that's a good thing.
Anderson: I'm probably a little bit elitist in this, but I think a "primary technology" would need to involve, you know, some fundamental new insight in code, some proprietary set of algorithms.
Andreessen: Oh, I agree. I think Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It's just applied to a sector of the economy instead. This is the basic insight: Software is eating the world. The Internet has now spread to the size and scope where it has become economically viable to build huge companies in single domains, where their basic, world-changing innovation is entirely in the code. We've especially seen it in retail—with companies like Groupon, Zappos, Fab.
"Amazon is a force for human progress and culture and economics in a way that Borders never was."Anderson: And these aren't copycats, or me-toos, but fundamentally new insights in software?
Andreessen: Yes, absolutely. I have another theory that I call the missing campus puzzle. When you drive down highway 101 through Silicon Valley, you pass the Oracle campus and then the Google campus and then the Cisco campus. And some people think, wow, they're so big. But what I think is, I've been driving for close to an hour—why haven't I passed a hundred more campuses? Why is there all this open space?
Anderson: What's your answer?
Andreessen: Think about what it has meant to build a primary technology company up until now. In order to harness a large enough market, to attract the right kind of technical talent, to pay them adequately, to grow the company to critical mass—until now that's only been possible with companies that are providing tools for all sectors, not just specific sectors. Technology has been just a slice of the economy. We've been making the building blocks to get us to today, when technology is poised to remake the whole economy.
Anderson: What categories are next?
Andreessen: The next stops, I believe, are education, financial services, health care, and then ultimately government—the huge swaths of the economy that historically have not been addressable by technology, that haven't been amenable to the entrance of Silicon Valley-style software companies. But increasingly I think they're going to be.
Anderson: Today, so much software is instantiated in hardware—Apple being a great example. As software "eats the world," do you think that we'll see fewer companies like Apple that deliver their revolutionary software in the form of shiny objects?
Andreessen: Yes, but I'm not a purist. In fact, we're funding some hardware companies. Let me give two examples. The first is Jawbone—they make portable speakers, noise-canceling headsets, and now a wristband that tracks your daily movements. Jawbone is an Apple-style company, in that it has genius in hardware and marketing as well as in software design. But if you took away the software, you'd have nothing.
Anderson: What's the second?
Andreessen: The other one is Lytro, which is making light-field cameras—this amazing new technology that lets you capture the whole depth of field in three dimensions and then focus and compose your picture later.
Anderson: It's a computer science company.
Andreessen: Yeah, it's computer science. But it's going to ship as a camera. And before I met Ren Ng, the founder, if you had asked me if we'd ever back a camera company, I would have said you're smoking crack.
Anderson: There's an app for that!
Andreessen: And Kodak filed for bankruptcy. But what Ren has is a completely different approach to photography. There's a lot of hardware engineering that goes into it, but 90 percent of the intellectual property is software. So we look at Lytro and we look at Jawbone and we see software expressed as hardware—highly specialized hardware that will be hard to clone.
Anderson: One last question for you. Software eating the world is dematerialization, in some sense: These sectors of the economy get transformed into coding problems. But I'm wondering whether there is an economic path by which dematerialization leads to demonetization—where the efficiency of the software sucks economic value out of the whole system. Take Craigslist, for example: For every million that Craigslist made, it took a billion out of the newspaper industry. If you transform these big, inefficient industries in such a way that the value all accrues to a smaller software company, what's the broad economic impact?
Andreessen: My bet is that the positive effects will far outweigh the negatives. Think about Borders, the bookstore chain. Amazon drove Borders out of business, and the vast majority of Borders employees are not qualified to work at Amazon. That's an actual, full-on problem. But should Amazon have been prevented from doing that? In my view, no. Because it's so much better to live in a world where that happened, it's so much better to live in a world where Amazon is ascendant. I told you that my childhood bookstore was something you had to drive an hour to get to. But it was a Waldenbooks, and it was, like, 800 square feet, and it sold almost nothing that you would actually want to read. It's such a better world where we have Amazon, where everything is universally available. They're a force for human progress and culture and economics in a way that Borders never was.
Anderson: So it's creative destruction.
Andreessen: When Milton Friedman was asked about this kind of thing, he said: Human wants and needs are infinite, and so there will always be new industries, there will always be new professions. This is the great sweep of economic history. When the vast majority of the workforce was in agriculture, it was impossible to imagine what all those people would do if they didn't have agricultural jobs. Then a hundred years later the vast majority of the workforce was in industrial jobs, and we were similarly blind: It was impossible to imagine what workers would do without those jobs. Now the majority are in information jobs. If the computers get smart enough, then what? I'll tell you: The then what is whatever we invent next.
Chris Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of Wired. He wrote about the death of the web in issue 18.09.