Ray Noorda, a miserly millionaire who built Novell Inc. into a networking powerhouse but then made the fatal business mistake of competing with Microsoft head-on, died Monday. He was 82 and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years.
Stumbling onto Novell in a serendipitous manner at a 1982 trade show, Noorda rescued the tiny firm, then called Novell Data Systems, and quickly killed its hardware operation.
In a 20-year engineering career at GE, Noorda had earned a reputation as an innovator and he quickly began innovating at Novell. He put that skill into play at Novell, where he focused first on developing the firm's software. As a result, NetWare became an industry standard and Novell's stock value soared. The firm's headcount grew to 5,000.
Noorda's tight-fisted ways were legendary. He usually showed up at 6 a.m. at his tiny office, which consisted primarily of a chair and a desk. No lover of corporate jets, Noorda often whipped out senior-citizen coupons to get discounted rates when he flew on business.
In the early 1990s, flush with the success of NetWare, but apprehensive about Microsoft's looming Windows NT operating system, Noorda set Novell on a collision course with the software colossus and spent more than $1 billion on acquisitions. Novell acquired AT&T's Unix operation, in a bid to compete against Windows. Digital Research was bought for its DR DOS to counter Microsoft's MS-DOS. Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet was acquired to counter Excel and WordPerfect to counter Microsoft Word.
However, while Novell's software retained a loyal user base, Microsoft ultimately won the battle to become the preeminent PC software provider.
Interestingly, while Noorda was often called "the father of network computing," Bill Gates called him the "grumpy grandfather" of the computer industry.
As he approached his seventieth birthday in 1993, Noorda began having memory lapses. He said they weren't significant. He retired and Novell went through a succession of leaders, but none of them could reverse the firm's decline.
One later chief executive officer at Novell was Eric Schmidt, who vowed to turn Novell into an Internet play. Schmidt couldn't turn Novell into an Internet-centric company, but he did help stabilize the firm.
Over the years, Noorda's little PC company spawned a thriving computer industry in Utah. "Ray was one of the innovators of the Utah Miracle," said Governor Jon Huntsman in a statement at Noorda's death. "He launched what would become Utah's technology sector. He has left behind a monumental legacy and we are all in his debt."
Noorda is survived by his wife of 56 years, Tye, four children, and 13 grandchildren.