Corel going south?

Michael Cowpland's departure form Corel, and the company's various short-coming.

Having just touched down at SCO Forum, now simply known as Forum, I've discovered that writing on an airplane isn't easy. They may have increased the leg room but it was still an effort keeping my elbows from banging against the scratched plexiglass they call windows, or from jabbing the person sitting beside me. On top of that, the in-flight movie sucked. But I spent enough time last week talking about things that suck. So let's spend some in-flight time pondering the search for a silver lining in the midst of what I'd call fairly unpleasant news.

Much of the buzz behind last week's LinuxWorld tradeshow in San Jose revolved around two events. I'll detail one -- commercial Unix vendors rallying around the GNOME desktop -- another time. The other event occurred on the opposite side of the continent from the show, as Canadian media broke the news of the resignation of Michael Cowpland, the flamboyant head of Ottawa's Corel Corporation.

The ultimate bandwagon jump
Corel's slipping fortunes were no secret, yet Cowpland's stepping down seemed to take most people by surprise, and in a very unwelcome way. For Corel had publicly banked its future on Linux unlike no other company. It was the first company that wasn't founded on Linux to create its own distribution. It has a healthy (if shrinking in popularity) suite of applications that it was committing to port to Linux. And it was the first software publisher to use mainstream marketing techniques to increase global awareness of Linux. While bobsledding isn't exactly everyone's favorite spectator sport, seeing the Linux name plastered across a world championship sporting event certainly seemed like a watershed to me.

And now here lies Corel, without the icon who has guided the company from the start. (Corel, after all, stands for COwpland REsearch Labs.) I fear that the resignation will be accurately read as a failure by Corel to satisfy its customers and investors. And considering that the company has committed its future so heavily to Linux, it will be seen in some circles as a failure of Linux.

It's one thing for Linux companies to have low share prices and little revenue early in their public lives, but it's quite another to see an established company go down after having looked to Linux to save it. Maybe Cowpland's leaving, in itself, doesn't mean the company's a goner. But I guess I equate Corel with Cowpland so much I just can't picture a stable and independent Corel without him at the helm.

No doubt the FUD-mongers would argue that a drowning Corel reached out and grabbed onto Linux, hoping it would be a life preserver but finding it instead to be an anvil. But to do so would be to ignore some of the mistakes Corel made with its Linux endeavors, mistakes that other would-be entrants could learn from.

Marketing window
For one, Corel's heritage in Windows apps was thought of as a clear advantage within Linuxland, but it proved to have a downside as well. The Corel Linux distribution employs a 'leave everything to me' installation mechanism that, in true Windows style, doesn't tell you what it's doing. That's fine (for some) when it works, but if it doesn't work, you have no idea what has gone wrong. Many people I know who tried Corel's distro -- even non-technical users, the company's main target audience -- eventually took it off their computers because, well, it was too much like Windows.

Corel, it appears, assumed that their biggest potential audience was Windows users who would migrate to Linux -- especially their Linux -- if it was a better Windows than Windows. And maybe that was the company's biggest mistake. When I first saw Corel's Linux I thought it was impressive, but it appears the market doesn't need or want a Linux that's merely a Windows clone that doesn't crash. Both the GNOME and KDE development efforts indicate higher aspirations.

In addition to failing novice users, Corel didn't do much to ingratiate itself to the hard core community either. The company left most technical issues, such as software updates, to the Debian project -- it wasn't an active player in either the LSB or LPI. Furthermore, Corel's KDE desktop forked away from the standard release, and it didn't appear to support the project with people or money the way other distributions (notably SuSE and Caldera) did and still do.

Unfavorable circumstances
It's not helping that Corel's desktop applications aren't being embraced by the Linux world. The company's decision to make WordPerfect available as a free download -- for personal use only -- was one-upped when Sun released StarOffice for unrestricted downloads. And it was further upstaged when Sun recently announced it would be opensourcing StarOffice completely. Compare this effort to Corel's WordPerfect Office, which opened to mixed reviews amidst complaints about speed and stability. Again, Corel's attachment to the Windows environment hurt it: unlike StarOffice, which has separate native versions for Windows and Linux, WordPerfect sought to make a Windows application that would run adequately under Linux's Wine emulation.

Corel's strategy may have worked in a competition-free vacuum. In a Linux environment with completely free and native alternatives -- AbiWord, KWord and StarOffice (when it's finally opened) -- WordPerfect just isn't finding much of a user base. Add this to an increasingly hard fight on the Windows front against the likes of Microsoft and Adobe, and it's easy to see why the company's fortunes haven't been better.

So here we are, with what might have been the unthinkable -- a Corel without Cowpland. At the news conference, Cowpland stated that his resignation was voluntary and had nothing to do with Corel's beleaguered state. I dunno, I just can't see the company sustained for very long. This looks to me like Corel is making the conditions right in anticipation of a sale.

Now the question is -- to whom?

Frankly, I would like to see one of Ray Noorda's Linux-related companies -- Lineo or Caldera -- buy Corel and opensource WordPerfect Office in much the same way that Sun says it will do for StarOffice. It would also be a hoot seeing WordPerfect return to its Utah roots.

Would it happen? Not likely. When I raised the question to Caldera people attending Forum here, the response was more laughing out loud than anything else. And given securities rules, even if there was something to tell, they couldn't tell me anyway.

So I'll just speculate about what could just be the most successful and appropriate next chapter in Corel's story. Without its captain, the company is rudderless and needs some direction. A traditional Linux company could be the right fit for a company like Corel, with some good ideas but whose execution leaves something to be desired.

Should a Linux company buy Corel? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at evan@starnix.com.