Keep an eye on Cowpland

The departure of Michael Cowpland from Corel’s centre-seat was the right call. It was a sad outcome – he founded Corel, poured his blood and sweat into the company, and then had to walk away – but it was the right thing to do for three reasons.

Number one, Corel is simply not a successful company. At one time it had been hugely profitable, but economic hard-times moved in with a vengeance. Recently, Linux mania pushed the stock to $60, but it then plummeted to a low of $3 after the failure of the Borland-Inprise deal, and Corel looked like a yo-yo that was quickly losing momentum. The slashing of 320 jobs in June cemented that impression.

While it’s simplistic to lay all of Corel’s woes at Cowpland’s door, there’s no doubt that something had to change up in Ottawa. Perhaps revamping the company’s management will revitalize the firm, develop new profit centres, and rebuild user and investor confidence in the company. In the short-term, look for Corel’s interim leaders to make additional cuts in an effort to shore up the financials, but long-term the company may do better without Cowpland. And he probably realized that.

Second, the departure will give Corel’s new masters the option of returning to the company’s core strengths by dumping the Linux products.

Cowpland is a Linux visionary, not in realizing the potential of the OS – he came to the table years after many open-source advocates – but in realizing the power of coupling Linux to a well-known vendor name. Cowpland stressed usability and stability in the operating system, and the Corel build of Linux made the OS seem more approachable to those who had not tried it. And the move paid off: in February PC Data reported that Corel owned 19.3 per cent of the U.S. retail Linux market. That translated into much-needed revenue.

The problem with this otherwise-successful picture is that Cowpland was messing with Corel’s brand. The company’s core business is graphics and, to a lesser extent, office productivity apps, and many stalwart users didn’t like the division in focus required by the Linux products. For proof of this, check out postings in on-line message boards devoted to Corel. Following the resignation, one Corel user wrote: “The company has become diluted because of [Cowpland’s] scattered thinking. If he wanted to get into bed with Linux so badly he should have created a new company, one not associated with Corel directly. Hopefully, with someone else at the helm, excellent software like CorelDraw and WordPerfect can be given the attention they deserve…” Other such postings are reproduced on page 14 in this issue.

The final reason the resignation was a good call is it once again makes Cowpland the man to watch.

Freed from running a company whose main job is milking a mature product set, Cowpland can set his entrepreneurial spirit free. He has stated he wants to move to a Linux start-up. It will be interesting to see what he can do there.

Michael Cowpland has made many statements about his recent departure from Corel, but “Goodbye – you won’t have me to kick around any more” wasn’t one of them. That’s good. Canada already has a sparse cast of tech firebrands. It would be a shame to see Cowpland walk off the stage.