LINUXWORLD SF - Novell gets more 'passionate' about Linux

Novell is hoping a new, more aggressive positioning of its Suse Linux distribution will win it more enterprise and desktop customers.

If you ask any Novell watcher to rate the software vendor's abilities, the chances are that observer will give the company a low grade for marketing. Novell has struggled with how to position its products for years and now hopes it's finally on the right track with a new focus for its Suse Linux distribution.

"We've underperformed in marketing; I accept that," said John Dragoon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Novell. "We're going to be a little more focused and more passionate."

Novell executives provided a general update on Suse Tuesday at the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco. Suse faces off against rival Red Hat's Linux distribution at the server level, but which company will be a major Linux provider on the desktop is up for grabs.

Dragoon hopes Novell's new tagline for Suse, "Your Linux is ready," will strike a chord with users concerned about the open-source operating system's performance, reliability, security, usability and support. The vendor released Suse Linux Enterprise Server 10 (SLES 10) and Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED 10) last month.

Novell's new message about Suse promotes the operating system's ability to run on the desktop to the data center, as well as stressing the role the open-source community plays in contributing to the software. "Our job as [Suse] custodians is not to screw it up," Dragoon said. Novell acquired the Linux distribution when it purchased German company Suse in 2003.

Since last month's launch, Novell has seen over 325,000 downloads of the operating system, 175,000 of SLES 10 and 150,000 of SLED 10.

"We know that mindshare is not market share," Dragoon said, adding that Novell's challenge is to convert the casual downloader into a Suse customer. About 19,000 of 150,000 SLED 10 downloads were by users who registered with Novell, indicating "some level of seriousness" about Suse, added Jeff Jaffe, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Novell.

"The battle for the Linux desktop has taken many years and will continue to take many years," Jaffe said. While Novell has had success with desktop Linux as a thin client or powering POS (point-of-sale) systems, the distribution has yet to make much of a dent in the corporate desktop operating systems arena where Microsoft's Windows OS dominates. "For the first time, we have a real alternative to the Windows desktop," Jaffe said.

Novell will target two groups of desktop users for SLED 10, Jaffe said. The first group is users of engineering desktops like the ThinkPad laptop Lenovo Group debuted Tuesday at LinuxWorld and which runs SLED 10, aimed at electronics engineers and chip designers.

The second, much larger group consists of "corporate knowledge workers" whom he defined as staff typically using five applications -- e-mail, presentation graphics, spreadsheets, word processing and the Web -- at work. What Novell needs to focus on with SLED 10 is ensuring that the distribution runs those five applications well and is interoperable with Microsoft's Active Directory, he said.

For the next six months, Novell wants to encourage companies currently evaluating Microsoft's delayed Vista client operating system, now due out early next year, to pilot SLED 10.

"Find several 100 users and try out our desktop," Jaffe said. "If you like it, roll it out; if you don't like it, go back to bloatware and upgrade to Vista."

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