Novell: The comeback kid

BrainShare: Novell's chief executive and chairman Jack Messman says contrary to popular belief his company learnt a lot from its mid-nineties tussle with Microsoft – and now it's got the Linux community in its corner

Jack Messman probably can't believe his luck. In the biggest kudos turnaround since Tom Jones went from washed-up crooner to born-again pop star by covering a Prince song, the Novell chief executive and chairman has managed to buy his company a double hit of the intangible -- relevancy and cool. Snapping up Linux desktop tool company Ximian and then the SuSE Linux distribution rejuvenated a company frozen in a mid-nineties time warp, shaking it out of the shell shock born from close-quarter fighting with Microsoft in the battle for network operating system dominance.

Messman, former head of services firm Cambridge Technology Partners, which Novell acquired in 2001, has transformed the company from one widely viewed as having great technology but little vision to one with a clear view of where it wants to go.

Messman's services background has probably shaped his belief that the future of Novell lies in the services and consulting required to make open-source software enterprise-ready. He claims open source is a "rising waterline" -- meaning software commoditisation, evidenced by cheaper open-source operating systems, will spread up the stack of applications to include database products and alike This movement is forcing software vendors to shift business models based around selling code to increasingly realign around the services required to make community developed applications usable in the enterprise.

ZDNet UK sat down with Messman at Novell's annual BrainShare user conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, to discuss the future of desktop Linux, keeping legacy customers sweet and squaring up to Microsoft once again.

Q: Your vice-chairman Chris Stone announced during his keynote that Novell has decided to "eat its own dog-food" and migrate from Windows and Office onto OpenOffice and SuSE desktop Linux. How much do you think you're going to save from this move?

A: Well, it's still very much a work in progress but last time I checked into this I think we figured we were going to save a couple of million a year by moving off Office alone.

Right, but do you think you're going to incur any hardware costs during the move - it's not all going to be savings right away is it?

There are always costs with everything you do but we are very confident that the savings will offset any costs involved. Plus the migration will have other benefits as it should enable us to create a methodology that we can share with our customers. We'll probably be able to create some migration tools from this too which we will be able to share with the channel and push out to customers. The most important thing for us is that with a project like this, until you do it yourself you don't figure out what the issues are.

Novell has gone through a lot of changes over the last year. Describing the business as a 'networking software company' no longer seems accurate. How would you describe what Novell is about now?

We were the networking software company but then Microsoft started putting a lot of those networking functions into Windows and basically bundled it for free. We stood in the path of Microsoft and learned some very valuable lessons. Now I guess I'd describe us as an enterprise software company but we are much more solution-focused than we used to be. We used to be very product-focused but now we are a much more externally focused company.

You lost out to Microsoft once and now with the Ximian acquisition and all the pushing you're doing around desktop Linux, you're going head to head with them again. You can't think that they are going to go any easier on you this time - especially now you're going after their core market?

People might not believe that we learned anything from the past but we have. But this time it is not us against them anyway. We don't own the Linux source code, the community owns the code. So it's the Linux community that is taking on Microsoft. We are not in charge of the open-source community.

The NetWare network operating system probably suffered the most as a result of Microsoft moving into the network management space. Now with your acquisition of SuSE, even more questions are being asked about its long-term viability?

NetWare continues to be a great operating system and Novell continues to support it and support its continued development but if people want to move from NetWare to Linux then we will help them do that.

Your mantra at the moment is that "Novell is back". Was there a palpable change in the internal moral and general feel of the company after the SuSE deal was finally executed?

Yep. It's helped a lot to create an identity for Novell. Our company was built on proprietary software development so moving to open source required some major changes but it has definitely been worth it. Before people couldn't always work out who we were or what we did. Linux is really giving us an opportunity to go out there and talk to people again. Novell has become the only company that can offer a clear stack of Linux services.

Red Hat is still the number one Linux distribution. What's your strategy for knocking it off the top-spot?

They are number one in North America -- we haven't been that focused on the US up to now but we are now. The key differentiators here are that we have a robust identification tools and we have a retail product which they don't have.

As we are in SCO's home state, can I ask if you were surprised to hear the news that Microsoft was allegedly involved in Baystar's decision to fund SCO?

(Laughs) Was I surprised? Absolutely not. Our position on this whole situation is pretty well known in the market. We don't believe there is any Unix in Linux.