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Jim Clark could well be the Bill Gates of the World Wide Web.

The 51-year-old chairman of Netscape Communications Corp. has become king of the Internet little more than a year after founding the California company, taming the wild Web for millions of consumers and business users.

Netscape's popular Navigator is the indisputable leader in the Web browser market; three of every four visitors to a Web site get there with help from Netscape. Mosaic-based browsers are a distant No. 2, with an estimated 16% share.

There's little mystery and no advertising in Mr. Clark's marketing strategy-he gives his product away free. Netscape allows Internet surfers to download its software at no charge.

But there is a method to his madness. If users want customer support for the browser, they have to cough up $39. Also, Netscape sells corporate versions of its software that cost several thousand dollars.

Most important, the Web's dominant players will have a big say in the development of electronic commerce standards, and Netscape's Internet security technology has already been endorsed by Microsoft Corp., Apple Computer, IBM Corp., Visa International and MasterCard International, among others.

Netscape was founded by Mr. Clark, who also founded Silicon Graphics, and company VP-Technology Marc Andreessen, leader of the team that developed the Mosaic browser at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputer Applications.

Despite its comfortable lead, Netscape has to keep a cautious watch over its shoulder. Several next-generation browsers are on the way and in the topsy-turvy technology market, today's leaders can become tomorrow's roadkill.

They can also-like Bill Gates has and Jim Clark hopes to-remain king of the hill.

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