Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Could Novell have become a Linux player?

Could Novell have become a Linux player?

Would Novell, which is now referred to in the past tense by the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, still be around as a company of substance if Chris Stone had not left when he did?

Today, Novell is just one division of the British mainframe company Micro Focus and is hardly heard of in the technology press.

It's interesting to look back to the early 2000s, the time when Novell was looking to right itself and regain at least some of its old glory, the halo that sat above it as the dominant player in the PC networking business. Towards this end, Novell decided to enter the Linux business, after revenues from its Netware product began to fall steeply.

The peculiar thing about Novell is that Netware, the product that gave it dominance in the PC industry in the 1980s and right up to the mid 1990s, was created by three people who were not employees: Drew Major, Dale Neibaur and Kyle Powell who hired themselves out as SuperSet Software.

But as networking software became part and parcel of every operating system, Novell found its main product less and less in demand. During this period Eric Schmidt was the chief executive and under his leadership Novell's decline and loss of marketshare accelerated.

Stone was part of the company from the late 1990s, and was driving the company's Linux strategy. To advance this endeavour, Novell bought the German firm SUSE Linux in November 2003, having earlier acquired Ximian, a company owned by GNOME desktop co-founder Miguel de Icaza and his sidekick Nat Friedman. Ximian had been trying to commercialise the GNOME desktop.

Stone, who was recently in Australia to push the wares of his new employer, Acquia, was happy to take a short walk down memory lane.

He said that apart from the SUSE and Ximian buys, Novell was also planning to buy MySQL and JBoss so that it had a complete enterprise stack to compete with other Linux companies. But before the process could get underway, Stone came up against opposition from his own boss, Novell chief executive Jack Messman.

Messman wanted to run the show. Stone, who until then had pursued a fairly aggressive strategy to put Novell on the front foot in its bid to gain a foothold in the Linux business, quit and it was all downhill from that point onwards.

In 2004, Novell had even produced its own Linux distribution under the name Novell Linux Desktop (I have a copy lying somewhere on my shelves). But when Stone quit later that same year, the wind seemed to go out of Novell's sails.

By August 2005 there were mass layoffs. Shortly after, Hubert Mantel, one of the founders of SUSE, left. And in 2006 Messman was asked to walk the plank.

Ron Hovsepian took over as chief and presided over the infamous patent-licensing deal with Microsoft in November 2006 that made Novell a pariah in the open source community. That was the beginning of the end.

In 2010, Novell was bought by the Attachmate Group who, showing some wisdom, relocated SUSE back to Nuremberg to be run as an independent unit. Micro Focus became the owner of the Attachmate Group in late 2014 and SUSE continued to stay in Nuremberg.

SUSE, on its own, has about a third of the revenue that Red Hat does but with a parent like Novell it could well have been much more. When it was run from within Novell, SUSE was just about breaking even.

Could there have been another big Linux competitor to Red Hat? It's a pity that personality conflicts got in the way of us never knowing for certain.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.