Though not quite 40 years old, Marc Andreessen is one of the grand old men of the Internet age. He co-created Mosaic, one of the first Web browsers, and co-founded Netscape, whose 1995 public stock offering launched the decade's Internet boom. Now the co-founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, Mr. Andreessen talked with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher about bubbles, the reasons for not going public, and investing in ideas that everyone is laughing at. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.
In the Beginning
MR. MOSSBERG: There you were [on the cover of Time magazine in February 1996]. When you think back to that period, what was in your mind about where things would go—and where you would go?
MR. ANDREESSEN: At that point, I had only been out of college for a couple of years. It was all new to me.
Around '93, '94, the conventional wisdom about the Internet was that it was a toy for academics and researchers. So it was very, very underestimated for about two years.
Then something happened and people woke up and said, wow, the Internet is a really big deal. It was a lot of fun, because people were becoming aware of the opportunities and the potential. But we got ahead of ourselves as an industry, and it turned out that the Internet wasn't ready for prime time in the way that it is today.
MS. SWISHER: How do you look at the browser landscape now? Is it going to be a bunch of competing browsers?
MR. ANDREESSEN: Total browser usage in the world is about two billion across all devices, including smartphones. If you just look at PC-based browsers, there are four browsers that have achieved a hundred million or more active users [independent of Microsoft's Internet Explorer], which are Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera. We backed a new browser company called RockMelt [because] of their exciting new approach.
I don't know that there's going to be 20, but it looks like there's certainly more than one. It looks like there might be five or six.
MR. MOSSBERG: Eric Schmidt talked here about the "Gang of Four": Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. Those are the four platforms he thinks are important and innovating and growing fast and warring with each other. Do you agree?
MR. ANDREESSEN: That's obviously a fair representation of a lot of what's happening in the industry. All four of those companies are doing very important and vital things.
I think the basic definition of platform is changing very fast. Today's platform vendors in the traditional sense are operating-system providers. Apple, Google, companies like that have a lot more control over what applications are made available on their platforms. Over the next five or 10 years, I think there's going to be greater diversity of platforms.
MR. MOSSBERG: He pointedly left out the company that you might have described as the Gang of One 15 years ago—Microsoft. How do you feel about that?
MR. ANDREESSEN: Microsoft remains a very, very big, important and vital company. The really interesting thing goes back to the smartphone revolution. The market increasingly is PCs and smartphones and tablets.
Microsoft fell below 50% of operating systems across PCs, smartphones and tablets about a year ago. Of course, that's because of the rise of smartphones and tablets.
MR. MOSSBERG: Did you ever believe when you were starting out that people would feel compelled to develop for Apple products?
MR. ANDREESSEN: The transformation of Apple is probably the biggest thing to happen in the last 15 years. People forget how dead Apple was in 1997. Within 90 days of bankruptcy.
Steve [Jobs] has really demonstrated that there was nothing wrong with Apple that a set of great new products wouldn't fix. New Macs, new iPods, iPhones.
MR. MOSSBERG: So when somebody starts a company they should have to make a really compelling product to get there.
MR. ANDREESSEN: It's really rare for people to have a successful start-up in this industry without a breakthrough product. I'll take it a step further. It has to be a radical product. It has to be something where, when people look at it, at first they say, "I don't get it, I don't understand it. I think it's too weird, I think it's too unusual."
One of our key things as investors is we always look for the thing that people are laughing at and that's growing like a weed.
MR. MOSSBERG: Is there a tech bubble?
MR. ANDREESSEN: We don't think there is. A very large number of people think there's a bubble, which makes us think there isn't a bubble. And if there's a bubble, it somehow completely failed.
In the late '90s the equity bubble completely infected popular consciousness. Fast forward to today. Apple's P/E [price/earnings ratio] is 12 and next year projected to be 10. Microsoft's P/E is seven, next year projected to be 7.2, we project next year it will be 6.8.
Google: this year 13.7, next year 11.3. For Google to be trading at a P/E of 11 means that the market is giving Google no credit whatsoever for Android. Android is being valued by the public stock market today at zero, which is just crazy. It is absolutely unprecedented to have companies that are this important going after markets this large, making this much money.
MR. MOSSBERG: What explains the LinkedIn phenomenon given the environment that you just described?
MR. ANDREESSEN: As an angel investor in LinkedIn I am biased. No. 1, it's only just one company. No. 2, it only just went public. No. 3, very thin float. No. 4, the public market is starved for growth, so there is a tremendous amount of growth equity in the public market that has been unable to find things to invest in. Five, you can't even borrow shares to sell LinkedIn short yet, so there's no counterweight on the other side. No. 6, LinkedIn is a really important company doing a really important thing and it's a very fast-growing business—I call it recruiting 2.0.
For the first time in history we have an equity bubble that is affecting one stock.
MS. SWISHER: What happens next? Some of these companies are moving into public markets: Zynga, Groupon, eventually Facebook. What happens then?
MR. ANDREESSEN: Since 1997 the number of public companies in the U.S. has fallen by more than half. It's even more dramatic if you adjust for GDP growth; then it's down by two-thirds. The amount of economic activity being represented in public markets is shrinking very quickly. Why is that? Because it's much more daunting to be public today. You've got all these new regulations put in place after 2000, so you need armies of lawyers and accountants to take a company public. Then you've got the rise of hedge funds and short sellers. It's a combat zone once you go public.
As a consequence, many of the best new private companies want to stay private for a much longer period of time.
Breadth and Depth
MS. SWISHER: What are you most interested in? What companies do you think are the most important going forward?
MR. ANDREESSEN: I'm really excited about anything that is able to address the really big markets, so anything that's universally appealing. No. 2, we really believe in deep technology. We believe in having founders who are engineers. We believe in having founders who can be CEO.
Google and Facebook have both demonstrated that a deep commitment to technology by the founders and at the core of the company leads to a valuable company.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: You talked about three platforms you thought were important from a hardware perspective—PCs, smartphones and tablets. What about smart TVs?
MR. ANDREESSEN: That could be very exciting. I'd like to buy one, I'd like to buy 10. A friend of mine has a three-year-old. He said the three-year-old walks up to the TV and swipes and nothing happens. The three-year-old says "Dad, the TV is broken."