A study in lost opportunity and potential success

Mention the Internet and there are probably one or two IT vendors that immediately come to mind as those that have defined its development and continued expansion.

Companies like Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Microsoft, Netscape, 3Com and IBM would certainly qualify as some of those trailblazing leaders. Each has contributed enormously to the popularization and propagation of the ‘Net and technologies that have expanded its function. Their products are the key building blocks of the Internet.

However, looking back some 10 years ago, there was one particular IT vendor in position to become the most important Internet company on the planet. Unfortunately, that company fumbled away its lofty position and ultimately let the tremendous opportunity slip away. That company was Novell and its performance during the formative years of the Internet and Worldwide Web is an almost tragic tale of misguided intentions and unrealized potential.

Back in 1990, Novell was the company that defined networking and its NetWare software was the glue that bound together the world’s client/server computing enterprises. Novell at that time owned the most widely used network operating system in the world and was poised to capture leading mindshare as a company synonymous with the Internet.

Since its inception in 1983, Novell has pioneered in the creation of systems that allowed computers to talk to one another. Novell was among the select group that virtually established the local-area network (LAN) market through its server operating system software for storing shared files and providing access to network printers.

So what went wrong?

Novell’s slide began in the early 1990s when founder Ray Noorda inexplicably became obsessed with beating Microsoft at its own game and becoming the desktop software brand of choice. That decision to take on Microsoft directly in a battle for the operating system and applications on personal computers almost drove Novell out of business.

After Noorda stepped down and Bob Frankenberg stepped up to head Novell, the company ditched its dream of usurping Microsoft and tried to reassert itself. However, the absence of a fully realized plan gave the appearance of a desperately floundering company

This dark period from roughly 1994 to 1997 almost caused Novell to miss the strategic window of becoming involved in the Internet economy and certainly cost the company a leading mindshare position.

Novell started down a path towards reasserting itself in its core business foundation of networks during fiscal 1996 with the sale of its UnixWare product line to Santa Cruz Operation Inc. (SCO), and its WordPerfect personal productivity application product line to Canadian software maker Corel Corp.

The hiring of Eric Schmidt as CEO, former chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems, in 1997 and the ahead of schedule launch of NetWare 5 in September 1998, represented a watershed.

Combined with a commitment to improve internal efficiencies, Novell in 1998 began harvesting the benefits of repositioning. The company focused on software applications, specifically its network directory services, which capitalize on the growth of the Internet rather than just providing network efficiencies primarily in LAN environments.

However, Novell’s bread and butter remained server platform products.

Novell has since made some important corporate decisions, not the least of which, is an acceptance that Microsoft dominates the personal computer and server segments. Instead of ignoring the huge installed base of Windows NT users, Novell now coexists with Microsoft.

Still, the company was nearing the end of its NOS reign. Novell’s staunch base of NOS users has steadily eroded. Recognizing a major power shift occurring in the NOS space, Novell has wisely decided to do what it should have done many years ago-apply its technology savvy to the Internet.

This refocusing on the Internet-instead of trying to combat Microsoft on its home ground-has brought Novell back amongst the living from the software scrap heap. The key to Novell’s identification with the Internet economy is its Novell Directory Service (NDS) — software that allows administrators to locate and manage objects, such as computers, servers, and users on their systems.

With networks bound together via the Internet, NDS becomes even more important. After the decision to co-exist with Microsoft instead of trying to combat the software giant, NDS was made available for Windows NT. True to a focus on providing augmenting and complementary technology solutions for the networking hardcore, NDS has since become available on Unix, Linux, and OS/390 operating systems, providing a strong cross-platform agility.

At its BrainShare 2000 user conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in late March, Novell revealed plans to recapture a leading role in the computer industry. An initiative, driven largely by recently appointed senior vice-president of worldwide marketing Steve Adams and senior vice-president of product management David Shirk, centres around a strategy for Novell to take on the role of a provider of infrastructure software that will seamlessly tie together corporate intranets with the Internet.

The resulting product suite will enable a variety of operating environments, ranging from Windows NT and Windows 2000 to Solaris and Linux, and of course NetWare, to be directory enabled and managed with or without access to a NetWare server.

The company now provides an important value add to existing and leading NOS and connectivity software. After years of floundering, Novell finally seems to have gotten it right.

The company has come full circle and appears well along a path that, barring a repeat of past miscalculations, may see Novell become the important Internet and networking company it should be.