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Monday, 08 January 2007 05:28

All about the mixed-source company

One of the classic quotes to emerge from of the tech industry in recent times has come from Maarten Koster, the newly-appointed president of Novell Asia-Pacific.


Just as a momentous year was drawing to a close, Koster, in an interview with ZDNet, described Novell as a "mixed-source" company. Not a commercial or license-based company - Koster used Microsoft as an example of that breed. Not an open source company - no, Red Hat was that kind of beast, said Koster.

Novell, on the other hand, sold Linux as some kind of "base building block", together "with identity and resource management products that manage a hotchpotch of proprietary and open source software within an IT infrastructure." That's a quote from the article.

Such characterisations, to me, are part of the identity crisis in which Novell has found itself ever since it decided to buy SuSE Linux and enter the business of reselling that product. It's not mixed-source by any stretch of the imagination as it never had any open source products in its ranks ever. No, it just bought an off-the-shelf product and then started reselling it.

For a while, Novell toyed with the idea of actually getting closer to promoting itself as a GNU/Linux company. A distribution, Novell Linux Desktop, a fairly polished effort based somewhat on SuSE, was put out - at least some journalists got a copy for review - and there was talk that while SuSE would continue to cater to its existing users, NLD would become the flagship business GNU/Linux product. SuSE, we must remember, is an European company and its roots do not really suit it when it comes to trying to compete where Novell wants to concentrate - the US of A.

But then Novell had no choice once it decided to buy a GNU/Linux company - Red Hat wasn't for sale and probably never will be. GNU/Linux was seen as a good investment and Novell wanted a going concern. So SuSE it was and a bad fit at that. Novell tried to take the biggest selling European distribution under its wings and fight a marketshare battle in the American market.


What exactly has happened to NLD? I haven't heard anything about it after the end of 2005 - the NLD DVD which I received after many requests is lying somewhere on my shelves. It was supposed to be a business-oriented distribution. More of the GNOME desktop had crept in - SuSE was a distribution which had concentrated on the other desktop environment, KDE - and it was proudly touted by Novell at business seminars held in 2005 as the answer to the business desktop solution which would help customers migrate away from Windows. In fact, there was even a touch of arrogance as Novell staff demonstrated how NLD would meet each and every business need using GNU/LINUX and technologies which the company had been selling for a while.

The exodus of key personnel has hit the Novell strategy - if one can call it that. Around the same time that NLD made its first appearance, Chris Stone, who was second in command at Novell, abruptly quit. An open source advocate, Stone was widely seen as driving what was then a fairly aggressive GNU/Linux marketing strategy. His departure took a lot of the wind out of Novell's sails.

In 2005, SuSE Linux founder Hubert Mantel quit the company, declaring that after being acquired, "this is no longer the company I founded 13 years ago." Mantel was a kernel developer. (Mantel returned to the fold recently though whether anything has changed to make SuSE something like the company he founded is not certain). There were more departures in 2005 -in May, former Novell Europe, Middle East and Asia president and onetime SUSE president Richard Seibt resigned. In October, SuSE channel chief Petra Heinrich quit.

With all this going on, earnings were falling. Jack Messman had a two-year target to turn things around and finally quit after failing to achieve his objective. The new man in, Ron Hovsepian, found himself still facing the problems which any technology company entering the business of reselling GNU/Linux faces - and his solution has been to finally cut a deal with a proprietary software company. That's a bit peculiar but then it has always been a bad fit for Novell. Round pegs in square holes - you get the idea.

Novell's other purchase, Ximian, has probably been more of an aid towards its present strategy: - at least what it proclaims that strategy to be - interoperability with Windows. But was this the aim of buying Ximian? The company was selling a souped-up version of GNOME suitable to business use and its two main stars both have some links to Microsoft - Miguel de Icaza applied for a job there, was rejected and appears to have been fascinated by Microsoft ever since while Nat Friedman did his internship at Redmond. Both favour the link up announced in November and hence they are probably the only bit of Novell which can be actually called mixed-source.

After three years of owning a GNU/Linux company, where has Novell taken it? Nowhere, it would appear. If anything, judging by where it sits in the community, it has gone backwards.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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