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12/1/2004
10:25 AM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Novell's Temperate Tone

Trash-talking and Microsoft grudge matches are out; straight talk and honesty with customers are in. Will other IT firms follow Novell's new business direction?

IT vendors and politicians have a lot in common. They tell their constituencies only what they want to hear, often making promises they'll never keep. When they run as the anti-incumbent, they rarely win, even if they do rally a sizable base of fringe enthusiasts. In industry as in politics, you must stand for something clearly different (and better) to unseat the established entity.

Novell is one vendor that has learned this lesson the hard way. For years, it ran as the anti-Microsoft. Its NetWare was the anti-Windows. Its WordPerfect and Quattro Pro applications were the anti-Office. Almost everything Novell did was a direct, over-the-top affront to a rival it had no chance of beating. The Novell faithful continued to pledge allegiance, but the company failed to enlist many new supporters from the ranks of IT management.

Easy Does It

Today, as it brings its open-source message to the enterprise, Novell is taking a more measured approach. With its introduction last month of Novell Linux Desktop, powered by the SuSE Linux Enterprise Server platform it acquired early this year, the company didn't promise to end Microsoft's Windows-based hegemony. Instead, Novell actually acknowledged that Linux vendors are overselling the state of the technology, that Linux partisans are overstating the capabilities of open-source desktops, and that CIOs are still approaching Linux as if it were a stunt on Fear Factor. Novell admits that its NLD suite of applications won't be a threat to Microsoft Office anytime soon, and that 2005 will be "another rebuilding year" as it continues to shift away from its reliance on NetWare sales.

For now, Novell is aiming the NLD suite of office (OpenOffice.org), e-mail/calendaring (Novell Evolution) and Web browser (Mozilla Firefox) software at relatively small pockets of desktop users: call center, shop floor and other specialized workers; technical professionals accustomed to the "feel" of a Unix-like environment; and Linux early-adopter verticals, like government and education. Even while arguing that NLD excels in terms of cost, security and reliability, Novell doesn't expect general enterprise adoption of the suite for at least several years. (Read our Quick Review of Novell Linux Desktop 9.)

Nothing Outlandish

So what does Novell stand to gain by taking this high road? Credibility. It's promising only what it can realistically hope to deliver.

Novell is making no outlandish market-share projections. It barely even mentions Microsoft anymore, except when it's suing Gates & Co. (and then collecting) for past anticompetitive transgressions. "Novell Linux Desktop is not about the wholesale replacement of your Windows systems," the company says, "but rather it's about identifying where and when an open-source desktop can be a sensible, cost-effective alternative." Sounds reasonable enough.

The platform holy wars are over--or at least they're taking on a more secular air. Even Scott McNealy, the notoriously zealous chief of Sun Microsystems, is turning iconoclast, straddling the line between Solaris and Linux while making nice with Microsoft. It's Microsoft, in fact, that's occupying the bully pulpit, as CEO Steve Ballmer rails against Linux's cost of acquisition, cost of ownership, security and licensing indemnification, all without acknowledging that thousands of Microsoft customers are anxious to deploy both Windows and Linux and are looking to Redmond for help.

IT pros can emulate Novell's temperate tone. It's your job to recommend Linux or Unix or Windows for certain applications based on cogent technical and business analyses, not on principle. Your proprietary and open-source options have never been greater. Explore them.

Rob Preston is editor in chief of Network Computing. Write to him at rpreston@nwc.com.

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