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Marc Andreessen predicts a future where systems companies like Sun Microsystems see their volume businesses shrink and massive online services providers become prime customers.

Andreessen, who helped launch the internet revolution through his work at Netscape Communications and on the Mosaic browser, said developers will flock to Salesforce.com, Amazon and eBay and companies of their ilk because they provide the operating system and server infrastructure as a platform so that developers can focus on building software and services.

Appearing at the Salesforce.com developer launch in San Francisco, Andreessen said the industry is in a phase where these providers have begun delivering on-demand development services, such as Amazon's S3 and Salesforce.com's Force.com. This follows previous years' work where the companies made their APIs (application programming interfaces) publicly available.

Speaking in the wake of Sun's $1bn acquisition of MySQL to drive its server business, and of Oracle's capture of BEA, a middleware competitor, Andreessen said this new wave is attracting thousands of start-ups and creating a challenge for such "historical platform vendors".

Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com's chief executive, hosting Salesforce.com's development day, called BEA's acquisition the end of an era and proof that on-demand is the future. "The industry needs a new kind of application server, a new kind of pricing model... [this] is the way things are going to go."

According to Andreessen, Sun sees its future as a supplier to start-ups such as his latest venture, the social network Ning - a self-confessed "big" customer of Sun. "The total aggregate of customers might shrink a lot but if you can get Google, Salesforce or Amazon, then there is quite a bit of growth," he said.

"From a developer standpoint, we are a big developer building the Ning platform on those old-style platforms and represent a new style platform to our developers and users, so our users never deal with the operating system."

Reflecting on his days growing up, Andreessen said he could never have got started if he'd worried about which middleware, operating systems or server to pick.®

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