Barksdale nurturing Netscape's enemy?

Talk about an about-face! Fomer Netscape CEO James Barksdale backs Microsoft veterans in new Internet venture.

What would it take to get former Netscape CEO James Barksdale to give money to the lead engineer behind the Web browser that crushed his company and launched the federal antitrust suit against Microsoft? A dozen top Microsoft engineers, including the lead engineers for Internet Explorer and Access, and the head of the "Dot-Net" initiative, are starting a company to try to take the hassle out of running an Internet company. And Barksdale thinks it's a good enough idea that he joined a $10 million venture round.

Called CrossGain, the company wants to take care of everything from databases and security issues to Web hosting, fault tolerance and bandwidth issues. CrossGain CEO Tod Nielsen said that as former Microsoft engineers, the company's founders learned from the problems Windows users had with what he called Microsoft (msft) "getting it right in version three" and leaving software developers spending 10 percent to 15 percent of their time writing printer drivers.

"Shouldn't there be an easier way?" said Nielsen.

That was the question that co-founders Adam Bosworth and Rod Chavez had about online companies when they started CrossGain in February. Bosworth, a 10-year Microsoft veteran, had been running Microsoft's database and XML (Extensible Markup Language) ventures. Chavez was one of the lead developers of Internet Explorer's versions 4 and 5. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

The pair saw that as with users of earlier Microsoft products, companies launching commerce or content sites on the Web are spending a lot of their energy on all the mucky details of keeping the site on the Net, rather than on the actual operations of their company. They came up with the idea of offering services to dot-coms so they wouldn't have to think about anything but their core mission, Nielsen said.

They recruited 10 other top Microsoft executives and engineers and then convinced Nielsen to join them as well. During 12 years in Redmond, Wash., the man once described as "the friendly face of Microsoft" did everything from being one of the chief developers behind the database product Access, to acting as the company's liaison with software developers and heading up the new "Dot-Net" initiative of Web-based software services.

The founders launched the company in February with $3 million of their own money. Nielsen said they decided to go for a round of venture capital in order to gain credibility with potential recruits, and they just closed the $10 million venture round from Barksdale and Benchmark Capital. Ironically, it was the team of former Microsoft engineers that attracted Barksdale -- who as CEO of Netscape engaged in a bitter "browser war" against Microsoft, which eventually became the basis of the Justice Department's antitrust suit against the software giant.

"I think it's just a dynamite class of people," said Barksdale, who is now a partner at the Barksdale Group. "I think the people responsible for Microsoft's behavior were at the top of the company."

The other thing that attracted Barksdale is the company’s focus on providing services rather than a prepackaged product. Nielsen said in order to maintain their focus on real-world problems, all employees have to spend one month every year working in the trenches with their clients at their clients' companies.

CrossGain's offering is still in the vapor stage -- or, in Nielsen's words, "in the petri dish." In other words, the company will have nothing to show until later this year.

But Benchmark general partner Bill Gurley said despite the early stage, he is confident that the CrossGain team will be successful.

"CrossGain's core team not only created a number of key Microsoft technologies over the years, but they also shipped products that brought Microsoft over $6 billion in revenue," said Gurley. "Benchmark chose to invest because we believe this talented team has a first-mover advantage and they understand what it takes to create world-class products and services."


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