Wall Street in the grip of techno-frenzy

Netscape is going to be the Microsoft of the Internet - or so investors hope.

The spectacular stock market debut of Netscape Communications has instantly rocketed the small California-based company to the same value that it took General Dynamics Corp 43 years to achieve. For a company that has not returned a cent of profit in its 16 month life, the launch underscored the technology frenzy that is gripping the stock markets.

The rush to commercialise and profit from the still formative Internet has created a frenzy not seen since the early days of personal computing. Netscape issued 5 million shares to the public and kept another 33 million for executives, venture capitalists and other early backers.

With an instant value of $2.4bn Netscape was the most successful offer of its size in the history of Wall Street, recalling the opening of Genentech in 1980, which started at $35 and finished at $71 on its first day. "The perception is this is a unique company - that Netscape is going to be the Microsoft of the Internet," said Roger McNamee, a money manager at Integral Capital Partners. "And everybody wants to own the next Microsoft."

The Netscape software allows users of personal computers to point-and- click their way around the Internet's World Wide Web, a colourful maze of text, sound and images stored in the thousands of computers around the world. Its revolutionary simplicity for users is, according to one expert, "a palatable interface that allows a significant change in the communicative structure of the planet".

If, as many believe, Netscape's technology to access the Internet is as timely as Bill Gates' Microsoft's word-processing and operating software was 10 years ago, then chairman James Clark's instant $556m fortune and the 24-year-old creator of the programme, Marc Andreessen's $58m, will grow effortlessly upward to the $13bn that Mr Gates is reported to be worth.

As founder of Silicon Graphics, James Clark parlayed an idea for a three- dimensional computer into a $1.5bn company. He branched out in 1994, frustrated at the company's unwillingness to invest in equipment for the information highway. He teamed up with Mr Andreessen, a graduate of the University of Illinois who had developed a precursor to Netscape called Mosaic.

Marc Andreesson is the picture of a computer "techie". Six feet five inches tall, he wears shorts to work, never bothers to decorate his apartment, and likes gourmet beers. According to Mosaic co-creator Eric Bina, "he always wanted a job in which he would be locked in a room with all the newspapers, magazines and access to the networks".

"He was this kind of galoofy looking character," recalls Mr Clark. "I didn't have a clue what was in his head."

Growing up in Wisconsin, Marc Andreessen said in an interview earlier this summer that his vision for Netscape Navigator was born of "sheer boredom". He turned to computers for stimulation and by the age of nine he was programming video games and, as a college undergraduate, first "surfed the net".

He worked throughout the day last Wednesday - the day that the company's stock offering rocketed to $2bn - recalling his 21st birthday when he had one drink and went back to work.

His current ambitions run to a two-tone pick-up truck with flames over the wheels. "There are 300 garages in Silicon Valley right now where people are working away while I'm having coffee. If we slow down, somebody's going to eat our lunch, " he said.

Marc Andreessen, however, is less than happy with some of the comparisons to Bill Gates. "Some people do not mean it as a compliment. They think I'm the next Satan," he says.

Netscape's chief executive of seven months, James Barksdale, has made a paper $244m on his 4.2 million shares, and after Wednesday is being celebrated as the new Gates.

As a leader he inspires loyalty with his idiosyncratic banter. One executive recalls him barking at employees: "If I tell people chickens can pull trains, it's their job to hook 'em up."

However some investment managers say that the Netscape offer will see an end to the frantic market in technology.

"It's just another wildly expensive technology stock," said William Fleckenstein of Olympic Capital Management in Seattle after the launch. "The Internet is where your imagination can run wildest."

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