Guest column: Overhauling the Novell Black Hole

In "Eric vs. the Redmond Baron" (www.nwfusion.com) earlier this month, I planted my tongue firmly in my cheek on the topic of the future of Novell. I pitched Wing Commander Eric "Clean Sweep" Schmidt against the Redmond Baron. I more than half expected a wave of complaints to land in my in-box for having the gall to characterise Novell as being shot down by Microsoft.

In February, I wrote a column entitled "Technology with emotion" (www.nwfusion.com), in which I disagreed with the conclusions of the authors of the January feature "King of the NOS hill" (www. nwfusion.com). In the feature, Microsoft's Active Directory Service was rated above NetWare, and the bigots from both sides had a field day.

Much to my surprise, I found I was riding on a storm front of spleen generated by the remarkable number of Novell Inc. fans who disagreed with the feature's conclusions. It was therefore with some surprise that I found the response to the Redmond Baron piece was mild.

Indeed, the tally for my column was one neutral response, while the rest were about as cynical on Novell's future as I am.

Do I detect a change of the market's heart? I think so. Novell has not been communicating too enthusiastically over the last few months. There have been few press releases (15 in May, only two in June and none so far in July), but they haven't said much, and users notice such things.

That's not to say the press release content isn't about good stuff, it's just that Novell seems incapable of getting the word out and getting the market excited.

For example, Novell's OnDemand Services is a promising service that provides a platform for the supply of online, for-fee goods and services. It supports short- or long-term rental or purchase through a Web interface and leverages Novell Directory Services as the control and management infrastructure.

OnDemand appears to work as intended - at least, to the extent that a company named Wizmo, an application service provider (ASP) in Minnesota, is using the system to run its business.

Then there's Novell teaming with Lucent Technologies to define a standard called Presence And Availability Management (PAM) API, which will make it possible to securely share user data in ISP and ASP environments. This is all well and good but does anyone care that much?

It seems that Novell doesn't have the right stuff - or, at least, is unable to express it if it does.

As a journalist who has a track record of admiring Novell, I would have thought the company would have kept in contact. But the first thing Novell has sent me in months is an invite to its reviewer's day in August (I shall go).

I think Novell has passed some kind of event horizon and turned into a marketing black hole, so its traditional customers have just stopped caring. In part, this has come about because Novell seems to think its target market is CXOs. Novell assumes its traditional buyers are in the bag, so why bother selling to them? Big mistake.

So what might Novell's future look like? First, there's the specter of a long, slow spiral into obsolescence. Not likely. Second, there's the possibility of acquisition by a telephone company or ISP - Novell being acquired by the likes of Lucent would be very interesting.

Finally, there's Novell being swallowed by a computer company such as IBM or Hewlett-Packard. Or perhaps Sun Microsystems? Now there would be an interesting mix, although the clash of corporate styles could be tricky.

I don't know about you, but it looks to me like Novell needs a major overhaul, and the possibility of it coming from within the company seems remote.

Send your scenarios for Novell's future to nwcolumn@gibbs.com.

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