SAN FRANCISCO-Try as he might, John Battelle could not push Ning co-founder Marc Andreessen to take the bait.
After lobbing some introductory softballs, Web 2.0 Expo keynote host Battelle asked Andreessen to talk about how Microsoft essentially borrowed Andreessen's concept of the Mosaic Internet browser, packaged it and made it an industry standard.
Andreessen, who created Netscape Communications and Opsware before creating social platform provider Ning, reminded the audience that Microsoft engineers took the code he wrote at the University of Illinois to build Internet Explorer, which Microsoft eventually packaged on PCs all over the world.
"It was very exciting," Andreessen noted drolly, drawing chuckles from the crowd. He also said he didn't panic when Microsoft entered the market. After all, Netscape made him a multimillionaire, selling more ad revenue than all the Internet portals and search engines combined by 1997 or 1998.
In another baiting question, Battelle noted Microsoft's increasing embrace of open standards and willingness to work with others, and asked, "Is Microsoft, as a company, from your point of view, defanged?"
"No. I think that they've got a very important role to play," Andreessen said, pointing to Microsoft's Live Mesh strategy of synchronizing all computing devices via the Internet as an example. The caveat is that the Internet landscape has splintered in a positive way and that there are more counterweights opposing Microsoft, chiefly, Google, he said.
Of course, that comment opened up another door.
"Speaking of splintering and fracturing, what do you make of Microsoft buying Yahoo?" Battelle asked.
Andreessen said the deal, currently worth about $43 billion, would be a good one for Microsoft if it goes through. He also said the prospect of a formerly successful entrepreneurial company getting acquired is a "little bit sad," but allowed that it's part of the natural evolution of business.
Microsoft has set an April 26 deadline for Yahoo to come to the table to strike a deal. If Yahoo fails to comply, Microsoft may lower its bid and take it straight to shareholders, initiating a hostile takeover.
As bleak as things look for Yahoo in its bid to remain independent, the future looks bright for Ning, Andreessen's latest baby. The social network enabler banked $60 million in series D financing, a valuation of $500 million.
Not too shabby for a site that helps users build their own versions of Facebook or MySpace.