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No longer the company I founded

Novell logo There have been a few twists and turns in the fortunes of SuSE since, peaking with the takeover of the SuSE Linux operation by Novell in 2003. This was a big step for Novell, which was busily redefining itself as an "open source" company. SuSE became SUSE with a capital "U", and Novell remodelled the SUSE Linux offerings after the example of Red Hat, with an enterprise desktop offering (SLED), an enterprise server offering (SLES), and a community edition (openSUSE) which plays the same role as Fedora plays for Red Hat, prototyping technologies for the enterprise editions. openSUSE continues the tradition of SuSE as a project undertaken by a wider community of developers led by staff who are sponsored by the parent company.

Initially, under the leadership of Jack Messman, Novell's CEO, and Chris Stone, who was instrumental in Novell's acquisition of both Ximian and SuSE, Novell declared itself to be an unambiguous proponent of free and open source solutions. Novell's channels would provide a market for Linux, and Linux would reinvigorate and expand the sales of Novell's high end identity management and networking tools, which had been in steady decline for more than a decade. While most of its sales came from server installations, the focus was on developing the Linux desktop.

This was always a long term play, and success, unfortunately, didn't come quickly enough. SUSE was a victim of Novell's endemic failure to revive its historic success in the Netware, identity management, data-centre management and security arenas, and to devise an instant strategy that reconciled and re-invigorated its traditional product base with radical advocacy of open source solutions. Within three years first Stone, and later Messman, had been ousted amid a flurry of redundancies, and Hubert Mantel, one of the founders of SuSE, had resigned from Novell declaring that "this is no longer the company I founded 13 years ago."

Exclusive interoperability

Ron Hovsepian
Zoom Ron Hovsepian, Novell CEO
Novell appointed a new CEO, Ron Hovsepian. "As CEO," Hovsepian declared, "my top priority is to accelerate the speed and urgency behind our transition to Linux-based products."

Into these disturbed waters came Microsoft, with a new solution that set Novell apart from the user and developer communities, but gave Novell a life-raft. In previous incarnations, Ray Noorda's Novell had been Microsoft's greatest adversary. In these more straitened times, Novell was glad to hang on to Microsoft's coat-tails.

The watchword was "interoperability" and more precisely, specific and exclusive interoperability between Microsoft and Novell's brand of Linux, which was SUSE. Recent reviews have praised the SUSE enterprise desktop offering, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) for being more like Windows than Windows. "Where SLED really shines is in its interoperability with the Windows and the Microsoft Office business environment. Linux and Mac fans may snicker at Microsoft's endless software mis-steps, but the truth is that most offices rely on Microsoft Office formats for documents, Exchange for email and groupware services, and Active Directory for network management. With SLED, however, you can have all that, along with improved Linux security and stability."

In the current environment interoperability with Windows is a necessity. But groupware and Active Directory are areas where Novell has products that are at least the equal of, if not superior to, the Microsoft alternatives, but these have failed to sufficiently penetrate the market.

To casual observers the Microsoft/Novell deal was standard fare for the industry. Novell management were making a deal that would, in theory, increase the uptake of its products. But it had greater significance to Linux developers and users because of the hostage to fortune it offered in the shape of patent indemnity and the appearance of credibility that it leant to Microsoft's unsubstantiated claims of patent infringements by the Linux kernel.

In return Microsoft offered $240 million in the shape of coupons to be offered to customers over a five year period to purchase Novell Linux server operating systems. Novell claims that sales through Microsoft coupons represent more than a third of Novell's current Linux turnover.

If, as it has maintained, the deal has brought extra sales to Novell, it is more difficult to identify the direct advantages that the agreement has brought to Microsoft - except that it serves to muddy the waters for free and open source software and cloud the issues of patent indemnification, to soften Microsoft's image with the European Commission, and to deflect sales from Red Hat to Novell, thus splintering the market for Linux. Most importantly for Microsoft, it creates division among the Linux and free software communities. In many senses the facts of the agreement are less important than what is inferred and read into it by Microsoft executives, and the perception of Linux that they pass onto prospective customers.

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