There may be few second acts in American lives, but Marc Andreessen looks like he is about to embark on his third.
His first company, Netscape Communications Corp., kick-started the dotcom era and eventually sold to America Online (AOL Llc.) for $4.2 billion (Rs16,884 crore at current rates), although it was pummelled into irrelevance by Microsoft Corp.
Andreessen’s second effort—data centre software group Opsware Inc.—made less of a splash. But Hewlett-Packard Development Co. Lp. just agreed to buy it for a respectable $1.7 billion.
It is unclear whether his third effort, social networking group Ning Inc., will succeed. But while entering an established business line is a new approach for Andreessen, there’s a chance he’ll once again radically change the game.
Think about it this way: Hardly anyone had heard of the worldwide Web when Andreessen first started developing a browser.
Similarly, many wondered what on earth he was doing when he co-founded Opsware in 1999. Automating tasks for servers in data centres seemed a technology backwater, especially for someone of Andreessen’s calibre. But again, he was ahead of his time. Now the hottest area in technology for corporations is virtualization, which allows groups to do more tasks on fewer servers. This has created a lot of work for Opsware, which explains HP’s interest.
Given his record at the vanguard of those two businesses, Andreessen’s interest in social networking seems odd. The business is hardly overlooked, indeed it often seems overhyped. He waded into it two years after MySpace debuted and a year after Facebook entered the space.
But Ning has an interesting business model. It allows anyone to create a social network, and even embed it in other networks, like Facebook. This essentially flips the current centralized model on its head.
And social networking may be particularly prone to revolutions. After all, the first commonly used service was probably SixDegrees, which was started in 1996. And Friendster, which led the fray after its 2002 launch, was rapidly eclipsed.
Andreessen’s record suggests it would be foolish to dismiss his view that the next big social networking trend will be decentralization. If he is right, it would mean hot sites such as MySpace and Facebook may suffer the same fate as their now-forgotten forebears.