To many outsiders and to numerous sections of the open-source community, Novell's decision to make a deal with Microsoft in 2006 to avoid litigation around Linux was motivated by desperation.
Novell had been struggling financially and failing to make much ground against open-source rival Red Hat. The deal that the company signed with Microsoft, which cost Novell some $40m (£20m), to avoid Suse customers being sued, meant that the two companies would promote each others products. Since then, Novell has realised a significant amount of revenue from being Microsoft's Linux provider of choice and saw its sales in this area rise by 65 percent in the last quarter.
Unsurprisingly, Novell's chief executive, Ron Hovsepian, does not see his company as desperate or a traitor to the open-source community, which it bought into with its 2003 acquisition of Suse Linux. Rather, Hovsepian believes Novell is a brave innovator, walking the line between old-world proprietary companies and disruptive open-source players. He claims Novell is all about building bridges and that, in reality, businesses are not interested in the binary thinking that afflicts many open-source enthusiasts — it is not about Microsoft being good and open source being bad, but "making IT work as one".
Speaking to the Novell boss at his company's annual BrainShare user conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, ZDNet.co.uk asked whether the Microsoft deal could actually be damaging in the long run and what effect a financial downturn could have on Novell's recent recovery.
Q: Novell is keen to position itself as an ally of Microsoft, despite the flak this attracts from some elements of the open-source world. Why, in that case, are you continuing with your antitrust lawsuit against the company for alleged anti-competitive practices around WordPerfect [which Novell used to own before selling it to Corel in 1996]?
A: We have tried to resolve this through normal business conversation, but we just viewed it from two different vantage points and we both decided to continue on the path we were on, which has unfortunately ended in litigation. But that is ok; that is what that mechanism is there for, at the end of the day.
But doesn't that send out mixed messages, given your apparent close relationship with Microsoft following the 2006 agreement?
It is very easy to compartmentalise that. I appreciate that customers might not always see it that way but, aside from our two legal departments, it has a very little impact on the rest of the company.
Your relationship with Microsoft has had some short-term financial benefits but do you think it will be damaging in the long-term, especially around your relationship with the open-source community?
I think long term will be the final arbiter. I think initially there was some reaction until we explained the details. [In the] longer term, I hope that we will be seen as the company that helped to bridge the relationship between the community and the Windows world. At the end of the day, we have to tackle that interoperability issue for customers, as that is where the real value lies.
Can you provide any numbers on how many of your customers really adhere to that mixed-source message?
I am very confident about all the calls I have made and I have yet to meet a customer who doesn't understand or believe that mixed-source story. You would be challenged to find an all-Linux shop or an all-Windows shop. I accept that there is going to be five percent of the continuum that operate there, but the broad majority adhere to mixed source. I met with a large financial-services company that said: "We love Linux; we love open source", and I asked them what percentage of their servers are running Linux and open source and they said: "Oh, about 50 percent of our servers run on Windows." We can talk about these things but, when you actually go into the datacentre, it's a mixed world out there.
Your attempts to tread this middle road between open source and proprietary make pragmatic business sense but you also need to attract open-source development talent, for instance, and these guys are passionate about open source as a philosophy.
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