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Now You Don't Have to Be a Geek to Use the Net : But Can These Guys--or Anyone Else--Make a Buck off Mosaic, the Software That Helps Make the Internet Accessible?

November 13, 1994|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Jim Clark is late for a meeting, and Marc Andreessen--boy wonder, cyberspace star, author of a computer program that inspired Clark to sink $5 million of his own money into a new company bent on commercializing it--is threatening to strip off his clothes.

"I'll be there in a moment," the avuncular Clark keeps saying, a line that--and he appears to know this--only further infuriates the impatient 23-year-old computer geek-cum-vice president. Hailed in recent months as something akin to the Moses of the Internet, Andreessen is still not quite ready to meet venture capitalists all by himself.

They make an odd couple: the well-dressed, 50-year-old founder of Silicon Graphics Inc. and the blond programmer from New Lisbon, Wis., who can be found pounding down Cokes and code at the local Denny's in the wee hours of the morning.

But Clark and Andreessen are among those at the forefront of a race to bring commerce to the Internet and the Internet to the masses--and they have something of a head start.

You've heard of it. The Internet: global jumble of computer networks and repository of informational gems, cutting-edge communication tools and new ways to make money--and all pretty much inaccessible to common mortals doomed to a life without the techno-whiz gene.

But that is changing fast, and mostly because of a program called Mosaic, written by Andreessen and a bunch of students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many of them, it so happens, now work for Clark at Mosaic Communications, the 7-month-old firm he operates out of a suite of offices evenly divided between whiz-kid hackers and neatly suited business types.

Mosaic Netscape, the firm's first effort at improving on the popular program, has become the buzz of the Internet since its release last month. (Andreessen and his college comrades were forced to sacrifice their preferred nickname "Mozilla," for the greater good of commercial marketing. "We considered it," Clark says. "But we just didn't think it would fly.")

Indeed, the mass migration of programers from the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications to the corporate world last spring has had more significant hangups as well: the young firm is expected to announce Monday that it is changing its name to Netscape Communications, the result of a tussle over intellectual property rights with the NCSA, which continues to work on improving its own version of the software.

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Mosaic allows users to browse through the Internet's mass of information by clicking on pictures and highlighted text. It displays graphs and maps, plays audio and video (after a fashion) and lets Net surfers follow an idea through a trail of computers across the world, unencumbered by arcane tech-lingo.

Mosaic makes the Internet pretty. It also makes it easy for a normal person to use.

At the same time, the computer language Mosaic is based on--HTML, or hypertext markup language--is so simple that contributing to the Internet has become almost as easy as navigating through it.

Businesses, governments, non-profit organizations and random individuals are plastering the World Wide Web--as the portion of the Internet's computers that speak HTML is known--with digital data ranging from personal photos to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Such "home pages," as they are called in Net-talk, are like graphic tables of contents that allow access to selected data at the click of a mouse.) And the number of computers storing such data around the world has multiplied to 10,000 from 100 at the beginning of last year.

Net sociologists predict Mosaic and its clones will soon democratize communication in a way the electronic revolution has always promised but never quite achieved.

And business executives--this is where multimillionaire Clark and his unlikely deputies from Illinois come in--herald the emergence of a new market and a new, inexpensive way to hawk their wares.

"It's like when the car first came out and you had to crank it, and later someone figured out to put a key ignition in," says George Brenner, vice president of information services at MCA/Universal, whose "Universal Cyberwalk" Web site went on-line last week. "You don't even have to know how to type."

Recent additions to the Web include the Caltrans page (for checking traffic maps), MGM's Stargate page (clips from the recently released film) and the White House (get a virtual tour, hear Socks meow).

Also: Megadeth, the Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse, Art Crimes (graffiti from the around the world), the complete writings of Nostradamus, Brett's Page ("Welcome to the Winona (Ryder) archive") and Romania.

The striking workers at the San Francisco Chronicle post daily editions of the "San Francisco Free Press" on the Web, complete with photographs and a red, white and blue masthead. Chronicle management, meanwhile, publishes its own Web paper.

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