Ex-Corel chief eyes wireless horizons

He launched a strike at Microsoft Corp. in one of its most secure markets. He championed Linux on the desktop when it was still relatively young on the server scene. And in a country where golf is about exciting as it gets for CEOs, he lived lavishly, drove flashy cars and even watched as his wife Marlen hosted a television show on pets.

For all that, though, Michael Cowpland brushes aside any notion that he’s a lightning rod for media attention.

“It just went along with the territory,” he said, speaking from his Ottawa office at ZIM Technologies. “(Corel) was the number one software company in Canada…and competition for Microsoft.”

While it all made for an exciting ride for the British-born Cowpland, technology is a field he’d likely be in today regardless of his level of success. “I was always interested in technology as a kid,” he said. “I liked to see how things worked, and making them work.”

That interest eventually led him to take a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering at Imperial College in London. Shortly after completion he met with a recruiter representing Bell Northern Research (Nortel, as it’s known today.) “It was a common thing” for North American recruiters to come looking for talent in the U.K., Cowpland recalled, given the amount of research being conducted at the time in the wake of the AT&T break up.

He accepted a job there in 1964. His interest then, and for many years to come, was mainly in the areas of telephony and tele-communications, and Bell Northern was a natural fit. His career path eventually led him to co-found Mitel with fellow U.K. ex-pat Terry Matthews in 1973, and he acted as that company’s CEO for 10 years.

And it was during that time, Cowpland said, that he made what he feels is his biggest accomplishment – the invention of the SX 200 PBX. “It was a big breakthrough,” he said. “It was the first one to use silicon…not a lot of transformers.”

But it was the founding of Corel in 1985 that brought Cowpland into the limelight. Primarily a graphics company, whose CorelDraw product brought “Macintosh quality to the PC,” Cowpland said, the Ottawa company soon came across a business opportunity it couldn’t pass up – the sale of the WordPerfect suite by Novell. Soon Corel would be taking on Microsoft in the desktop applications market, where Word already owned up to three-quarters of the market.

Corel’s move had an impact – at one point there were as many as 34 million users of WordPerfect. But the momentum couldn’t last. Cowpland admits mistakes were made. “We should have moved…operations to Canada, instead of leaving it in (Provo) Utah,” he said. “Sales were going down too fast to maintain the large group in Utah.”

Corel eventually did just that, but did so too late to help regain market share lost to Word. Next came an attempted merger with Borland (known as Inprise at the time) that at one point pushed Corel’s market valuation to $5 billion. “At the time Corel was the number one traded stock in the world – for four days,” Cowpland recalled.

The merger bid ultimately failed, but the emphasis on Linux continued, including a desktop Linux product and even Linux-based hardware. Cowpland said the combined Corel/Borland would have gone a long way to making Linux on the desktop a reality.

Looking on it today, he also said it was probably the last chance to make make inroads on Microsoft’s desktop dominance.

“It’s probably missed its window,” he said.

Eventually, Microsoft invested money into a flagging Corel, and Cowpland left the company. Today, he’s heading up ZIM Technologies, which specializes in two-way SMS text messaging, and driving content to mobile phones – something Cowpland said business users are more than willing to pay for.

Looking back, he says the Internet bubble combined with the Y2K phenomena, which caught him and the industry at large, have forever changed IT spending habits. But for now, he’s focusing on the future and, of course, his home base.

“Ottawa is just getting better,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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