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February 18, 1996|CHARLES PLATT | Charles Platt is a contributing writer to Wired magazine. His science fiction novel "Protektor" was recently published by Avon Books

In slightly more than a decade, the Internet has evolved from a funky little government-owned message-swapping system to a virtual community of 25 million users worldwide. Hundreds of computer scientists, capitalists, academics, and lawmakers have played a part in this astonishing transformation. Who are the key players? Here are six whose effects are tangible. As Netizens like to say, "YMMV"--or, Your Mileage May Vary. Meaning that there's no consensus about who matters most in cyberspace. Clearly, though, these seven Netfolk have had a profound impact--and some of them will have a still bigger impact in months to come.

Marc Andreessen

Occupation: software designer; Age: 24; Achievement: leader of Netscape design team; Computers: Compaq, IBM, Mac and a Unix workstation; First time on the Net: 1984; Internet address:; Favorite Web site: Wall Street Journal; Guiding principle: "In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the winner is the terrain."

In 1992, there was this new thing called the World Wide Web, and no easy way to find your way around it. A 21-year-old University of Illinois undergrad named Marc Andreessen had an idea: a tool that would allow users to navigate the Web by pointing and clicking with a mouse. He put together a loose-knit team of programmers, and they wrote Mosaic, the first true Web browser.

Meanwhile, Jim Clark, founder and chairman of Silicon Graphics, a high-end computer manufacturer with annual revenues of $1.5 billion, quit his job, made a deal with Andreessen and co-founded Netscape in April, 1994. By October they were distributing a beta-test version. A year later, Netscape had become one of the most sensationally successful products ever launched. Last August, 5 million shares of stock were issued in the first public offering--Andreessen took a million of those shares, putting his current net worth at well over $100 million.

Already Netscape is being touted as a threat to Microsoft, but Andreessen says it simply filled a need that other people weren't addressing. "Eighteen months ago, there weren't any tools that ordinary people could use to view, create and access content [on the Internet], Andreessen says from a car phone somewhere in Silicon Valley. "We gave them the ability to do that."

Now Netscape is catalyzing what could be a fundamental shift in emphasis from programs that sit in your personal computer to resources scattered across thousands of remote sites. Netscape can now operate in conjunction with "applets," small applications that zip down the wire into your system and run themselves. This means that Netscape is starting to look more like an operating system such as Microsoft's omnipresent Windows. "Yes," Andreessen agrees. "We're building a platform so other people can build as many other things onto it as possible."

Some complain that it isn't quite so simple. Bruce Fancher, president of Phantom Access Technologies, a software development company that also operates a Web service provider named Mindvox, charges that Netscape ignores existing standards and invents its own, forcing Web-page designers to do things Netscape's way or risk incompatibility. "The growing dominance of Netscape increasingly casts a dark shadow over the future of the Internet as a level playing field," Fancher says. This is exactly the complaint that has been leveled many times against Microsoft--giving the comparison of the two companies an interesting twist.

Andreessen, in any event, remains bouyant about Netscape's possibilities. "There's no end of things we can do," he declares. " We can keep adding capabilities and functionality, multimedia and 3-D graphics. As far as we're concerned, we've only just gotten started."

David Lawrence

Age: 28; Occupation: overseer of usenet news groups Computer: Micron P-133; First time on the Net: 1985; Internet address:; Favorite Web site: (for its free syndicated comic strips); Favorite news groups:; alt.boomerang; Guiding principle: "Those who find they have nothing to go out of their way for soon find that they have nothing at all."

Ask hard-core 'netters who has the most influence online and David Lawrence's name crops up more than any other. Not because of what he builds or designs--he works as an administrator at UUNET Corp. in Fairfax, Va., where he maintains Internet-related hardware and software--but because of what he does in his spare time.

Since January, 1991, Lawrence has been an unpaid volunteer helping to run usenet--the Internet's sprawling news exchange that carries more than a million messages a day. On usenet you can get medical advice, swap opinions on recent movies or discuss philosophy. As Nebraska Sen. James J. Exon never tires of informing Congress, you can also find a supply of pornography, if you know where to look.

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