Caldera, stay off the mushrooms

Matt Loney: Caldera's decision to change its name to The SCO Group indicates that it might be suffering from one vision too many.
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor

Some software vendors have vision. However misguided these may sometimes be, they stick to it, and should be applauded for doing so. They weather stinging criticism from critics, vicious short-selling in bear markets and may even find themselves in exactly the wrong square of a Gartner magic quadrant. (If you don't know what a Gartner magic quadrant is then don't worry. Neither does Gartner. It just pretends that it does, and it sells them at prices far higher than what it costs to make them, to people who obviously have too much money.)

But what makes such companies successful is that they have a vision and they stick to it. Take Microsoft. You may not like its business practices or indeed its criminal behaviour, but if there's one thing it has it is vision. Actually, strike that: it has lots and lots of money. I believe the company had about $40bn in cash at the last count, but the point is that it got this money because Gates, love him or hate him, had a vision. OK, so Gates' vision was to make lots of money, but it was also to own the desktop software market.

What sets companies like Microsoft apart from companies that are not like Microsoft is the number of visions they have. Microsoft and its ilk have one. And the others? Let's just say they've had one mushroom too many.

Take Corel, for instance. If there's one company that's been overdoing the Psilocybe semilanceata, it's those crazy Canadians, eh? This company built up a respectable business on the back of the highly regarded Corel Draw, and then decided that what it really needed was an office suite. After all, don't we all? So Corel spent a lot of money buying a word processor, a spreadsheet and all the other paraphernalia you need for a not-at-all-bad little Windows suite with a view to some comfortable profits on the horizon. But then Corel saw Java, and decided that was the new Windows, and spent a lot of money porting everything to Java.

Until, that is, Linux came along, and Corel decided to ditch Java and spent a lot of money porting everything to Linux. And then Linux stocks took a dive, and Corel decided to port everything back to Windows again. Or something.

Now whatever Microsoft's faults, you won't catch it lurching from pillar to post on a cocktail of different operating systems. The company may be prevaricating over its support of Mac OS X, but I suspect that if it ever did port its applications to Linux, it would do so with a strategy that fits in with its overall vision for Windows (if such a thing is possible).

If there is another company that appears to be in danger of having one vision too many, I'd venture to say it is Caldera. Caldera started off as a Unix project, and then became a Linux company. Now it is a Unix company, and it is not called Caldera any more, but has taken the name of SCO, from which it bought the eponymous Unix arm barely two years ago.

This latest move by Caldera -- sorry, The SCO Group -- coincided neatly with the holiday season, so the company has not had much of a chance to explain exactly what its strategy now is. But two things are clear: first, the departure, just before this latest announcement, of chief executive Ransom Love to head up the UnitedLinux project indicates that he was not entirely enthralled by the decision, though one wouldn't expect him to say so publicly. Second, the change of strategy has former Novell chief executive Ray Noorda's fingerprints all over it.

Let me explain.

Back in the days when network operating systems were network operating systems and Windows was a DOS add-on, Novell had a little project on the back burner called Corsair. This project, which was essentially based around a stand-alone desktop operating system, eventually split from Novell, with Ray Noorda's backing, to become Caldera under the auspices of Ransom Love and Bryan Sparks.

Never one to turn down the opportunity of a fast buck, Noorda was also in the habit of spinning off other parts of the Novell business. He sold WordPerfect to Corel, and UnixWare to SCO.

As Unix (and UnixWare) flourished, IBM got interested and hooked up with SCO and with Sequent, which it later bought outright, to create a single unified Unix, called Project Monterey. That other Unix giant, Sun, was not involved in this deal but then, IBM figure, the combined might of IBM's AIX, Sequent's Dynix/ptx and SCO's UnixWare spreading across the 32-bit and 64-bit worlds would make Sun irrelevant pretty soon anyway.

Then came Linux, which spoiled everything.

IBM ditched UnixWare faster than you could say: What happened to Project Monterey? (to which you would never, ever, get a straight answer from IBM). SCO got cold feet and sold its operating systems to Caldera with not a little help from Ray Noorda's investment firm, Canopy Group, which was and still is a major stockholder in Caldera and which gave SCO an $18m loan as part of the deal. And as part of the deal, SCO changed its name to Tarantella to reflect its new role as a Web-enablement company selling the software of the same name.

Now fast forward two years to the new Caldera, owner of SCO's Unix arm and distributor of a version of the Linux operating system sold mainly for desktop use. Sadly, Linux has lost its lustre in financial circles, it is still not making enough of an impact on the desktop to support a company the size of Caldera, and Caldera is making far, far more money out of SCO anyway.

It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to imagine what the investors, including Ray Noorda, have been pushing for at recent Caldera board meetings: ditch Linux, and stick with the Unix cash cow. Oh, and change the name, just for good measure.

With the amount of information to come out of The SCO Group since the change of name and strategy thinner on the ground than mushrooms in March, it's hard to see just how much Linux will linger in the new company. Volution, the software for pushing software (and updates and fixes) to the desktop still seems to be there, but not much else. For a long time at the old SCO, and later at Caldera, there was talk of building a Linux 'personality' for UnixWare that would allow Linux applications to scale beyond where they can today in commercial operations. But from what I've seen so far the company seems more interested in UnixWare specifically.

So does the management of The SCO Group know what it is doing? I'd say yes: it's chasing the money. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it won't work unless the company is single-minded about its vision, and at the moment, there is precious little evidence of this.

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