Novell pitches alternate desktop

Novell Inc. took a swing at Microsoft Corp.’s dominance on the corporate desktop this month with the release of the Novell Open Workgroup Suite, which repackages several open-source applications and tools under new licensing terms.

Novell sees a window of opportunity as businesses debate whether to upgrade to Microsoft’s forthcoming Vista OS and Office 2007 products. It hopes the lower licensing fee for its software will tempt businesses to walk away from Microsoft’s dominant desktop platform and try Novell.

The suite includes Novell’s Open Enterprise Server (including SuSE Linux Enterprise Server), GroupWise collaboration tools, ZenWorks desktop management tools and Novell Linux Desktop, as well as the OpenOffice productivity suite for Linux and Windows.

None of the software is new; it’s a rebranding and renaming of Novell’s existing Small Business Suite and Linux Small Business Suite. But it comes with OpenOffice for Windows for the first time, and it’s offered under new licensing terms, including a subscription option that starts at US$80 per user per year, said Brian Green, a Novell technical director in the U.K.

Open-source software has done well in the server market but its adoption on the desktop is hampered by concerns about ease of use and the availability of compatible software drivers and applications.

“You can make Linux easy to use if you set it up right, but there are still touchy areas for users who want to set up their own network, for example, or use an unusual graphics card. It still lags significantly behind Mac OS and Windows,” said Gary Barnett, an analyst at Ovum Ltd. in the U.K.

Novell will address those concerns in the coming months with a new version of Novell Linux Desktop, Green said. To be rebranded SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, the software will focus on ease of use, making it easier to find the right driver or create macros in Excel, he said. Customers who buy a maintenance subscription for Open Workgroup Suite will get a free upgrade to the new desktop products when it’s released.

There are also some negative perceptions around Novell’s brand, according to Barnett. The company lost a big share of its operating systems business to Windows in the 1990s, and it has yet to re-establish itself fully since it acquired SuSE Linux two and a half years ago and reinvented itself as a Linux company.

“Microsoft’s ownership of the desktop is of continental proportions, so we’re talking about a tectonic shift rather than a big bang,” Barnett said. “The announcements from Novell and other players help enhance the credibility of Linux on the desktop, but I don’t see a big tipping point coming in the next two years.”

A version of Open Workgroup Suite for use on Linux servers only, but for use on any desktop OS, is US$80 per year for an annual maintenance subscription, or $110 for a perpetual licence. With the perpetual licence, maintenance is $75 per year extra.

A cross-platform version, for use on any server and desktop OS, is $150 per user for a perpetual licence, with annual maintenance an extra $106.

That pricing is around 70 per cent cheaper than buying comparable Microsoft products, Novell said, citing a three-year licence for 250 users under Microsoft’s Enterprise Agreement contract for desktop software.

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