Interview: Novell's Stone aims to beat MS at its own game

As part of a management reshuffle earlier this month, Chris Stone returned to Novell after having left the company in 1999. Yesterday, at the opening of Novell's BrainShare user conference here, Stone, whose position is now vice chairman, office of the CEO, served as ringmaster after announcing that CEO Jack Messman was absent due to medical reasons. Later in the day, Stone spoke with Computerworld's Michael Meehan and Don Tennant about the changes he and Messman plan to make at a company he says needs to "stop whining" and get more aggressive.

Q: You said in your keynote that you're going to beat Microsoft Corp. at its own game with respect to aggressive tactics. Can you elaborate on that?A: What Microsoft has been doing is targeting our channel. They go after channel partners of ours and they give them [Windows] NT as long as they'll dump NetWare. That's their strategy, and it's been very successful. So why wouldn't we do that? Novell has been one of those companies to just sit around and whine about it. Let's stop whining about it and go back to the same channel and say, "Hey, how'd you like NetWare 6 for free?" Because right now we charge our channel partners an exorbitant amount of money to upgrade to our new products.

If you do a cost analysis, if you give away a particular platform, you're going to sell something else -- that's how Microsoft does it. They've been buying our channel at our expense while they generate additional revenue. Why wouldn't we do that? So that's what we're going to do.

Q: Why didn't you do that when you were here before?A: I didn't own it. I was a terrorist. I didn't have a country.

Q: How do you balance your plan for more aggressive marketing, much of which bashes Microsoft, with your determination to improve product integration and interfaces, much of which depends on Microsoft?A: The balance with Microsoft primarily is to work in two key areas: From a protocol perspective we're going to support SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol] -- not as a wrapper, but native SOAP protocols. The other is that Active Directory continues to be something we have to support. We're actually going to make ZENworks work with Active Directory. That's a little different from what people would expect us to do.

And then from a developer perspective, as Microsoft rolls out .Net with some of their services, their developer teams and our developer teams are going to start to get together and communicate more often. So it'll be friendly cooperation on some protocols and developer-related issues, and of course combative in the marketplace to generate revenue. It's important for our users because everybody's got that stuff.

Q: Are you getting everything you need from Microsoft?A: No, absolutely not.

Q: What are you going to do about that?A: There are [different] ways to [address] that. One is to cooperate more and try to get more friendly, primarily with their developer and evangelism team, where they actually give us some of these interfaces that we'd like to have. And there are other ways.

Q: Like what Sun Microsystems Inc. is doing right now -- suing Microsoft for $1 billion?A: Other ways, which I'm not going to comment on. Let's just say that they're an aggressive bunch and we shouldn't just sit back and let it happen.

Q: How would you characterize your working relationship with Microsoft?A: I know most of those guys. If you'll remember [as founder of the Object Management Group], I built this thing called CORBA [Common Object Request Broker Architecture], so I've competed head-to-head with these guys for a long period of time. When we dreamed up CORBA, they decided, 'We can do that better,' and they came up with OLE [Object Linking and Embedding] and COM [Component Object Model] and eventually DCOM [Distributed Component Object Model]. So yeah, we have a relationship.

Q: Has Novell missed the boat with Java?A: Yes, absolutely. We blew it.

Q: What do you attribute that to?A: We couldn't let go. Couldn't let go of NLMs [NetWare Loadable Modules], couldn't let go of NCPs [NetWare Core Protocols]. There are a million of these proprietary interfaces to Novell products. Even when [former CEO] Eric [Schmidt, who came to Novell from Sun] was here I couldn't get him to do it.

Q: Given that Novell has a strong partnership with Compaq Computer Corp., do you have any concerns about the proposed merger of Compaq with Hewlett-Packard Co.?A: I think the only concern is some momentum, because they're so wrapped up in this whole issue. Mergers take time. If you look at Compaq, they're still swallowing the Tandem [Computers Inc.] and DEC [Digital Equipment Corp.] mergers -- that's still not complete, quite frankly. So this one will just be a big distraction. For Novell as a company, our concern is the distraction and how that will affect our ability to partner with Compaq going forward.

Q: What can Novell do to help users who have bought disparate products that they haven't managed to tie together?A: Well, they were sold a bill of goods -- [all you have to do is] buy a portal. How many IT departments do you know that have actually integrated some portal across all of their environments? Name one. They just don't exist. It's really sad how much money was spent on something like [Sun's application server] iPlanet because you get a portal.

How many of those projects are still under way vs. how many have been shelved? Quite a few are still under way -- that's why they're not buying much. They all slowed down so they could finish implementing all the crap they bought in the past couple years. That in itself is an opportunity; it presents us with an interesting way to come in with a bunch of services.

Q: You've got some good technology. Do you think that makes Novell a prime acquisition target?A: No, we're not interested in that. As a management team here we're just not interested in that. We're interested in making the company succeed on its own merits.

Q: Do you feel like you have the technology and resources in-house that you need?A: No, we do not.

Q: Do you have to look outside for acquisitions to get it? If so, what gaps do you have to fill?A: Yes. We've been talking a lot about Web services. What's the missing component there? An authoring tool. In the Web services area you've got to have an app server, you've got to have a complete authoring and development environment. There's an interesting space for us to look at.

Q: You're partnering with BEA Systems Inc., which just put out a Web services authoring tool. Will you be doing anything with BEA in that space?A: We'll continue to work with BEA; we have a close relationship with them. But we'll see how that relationship goes.

Q: If you could go back and change any decision you've made during your time with Novell, what would it be?A: Leaving. That's why I came back.

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