Corel's Cruel Karma

When really bad things keep happening to a really good company.

On the same day that Human Resources Development Canada goes on the defensive about its "Orwellian computer database", one that according to last Wednesday's National Post "contains unprecedented amounts of personal and financial information on 33 million living and deceased Canadians", Corel Corporation finds its own plans with database developer Inprise/Borland to be in full-scale retreat.

Corel confirmed last Wednesday morning that its merger with Inprise/Borland has been abandoned, shedding some light, perhaps, on Michael Cowpland's absence from the LINUX Canada/New Media 2000 Conference & Expo, where he had been scheduled to give a keynote address the day before. At the same time, the announcement casts into shadow, at least, the short-term future of Canada's largest software developer, which has already mentioned impending cash shortages and the possibility of layoffs.

Inprise/Borland is more than just Interbase, the popular RDBMS whose actual open-sourcing trails the initial announcement by about six months. In fact, Inprise/Borland is not Interbase, having decided to spin off Interbase as a separate company. However, an Interbaseless Inprise/Borland would still have been quite an addition to Corel Corporation, providing Corel with the application development talent that produced such tools and services as JBuilder and Delphi. Linux Journal's Doc Searls spoke with Inprise/Borland CEO Dale Fuller soon after the merger announcement was first made, and unfortunately for many people involved with both companies, filed a recent report on the merger's collapse.

This is a shame. Corel makes good products, one of which (in the form of Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux) was on display at LINUX Canada last week. And insiders at both companies are said to be enthusiastic about a Corel/Inprise/Borland future, one which would combine the engineering and development talent of Inprise/Borland with the significant mindshare of Corel. But Corel is as much a victim of stock-market agonies and ecstasies as it is any of its own missteps or the misfortunes of the environment (the Microsoft Formerly Known As Both Immovable Object and Irresistible Force). Mounting threats of shareholder lawsuits, including one from an Inprise/Borland director, claiming, in effect, that Corel's stock was worth the swap and Inprise/Borland should have known better, led to continued bad press - which meant that if Corel's stock didn't look great before, it certainly wasn't going to start blooming like roses now.

So when the word hit the show floor that not only had the keynote speaker hat been passed from number-one man Cowpland not to a number two, but to "the Worldwide President of the Corel Creative Group" Ian LeGrow, there was instantly the sense that more bad news of some sort had struck Corel, and that Mr. LeGrow and his merry band of blue-shirted Corel boosters were on their own.

One thing Mr. LeGrow seemed to share with many of those on the business side of things was his (and by extension, Corel's) pride in having "washed some of the UNIX out of Linux", principally through "masking the command line". While Mr. LeGrow noted ironically that Linux's "daunting" file system was one of the operating system's many virtues, simplifying it for Corel's purposes was one of the Corel team's biggest priorities.

For Corel, Linux is "the Web OS" which is as good a slogan as any for Linux's second year in the media spotlight. However, Corel's demonstration had precious little to suggest how Corel was taking advantage of this fact. If, upon hearing that Windows was "the Web OS", one could expect (and, perhaps, come to regret) an exceptional level of intimacy between operating system and, say, a browser. It is strange to see Corel move its lips on the subject, but in actuality, hear no sound. Linux is likely to be one of the most worthwhile operating systems when it comes to the Internet (given the deployment of Linux as a web server, for one), but insofar as Corel's Linux distribution is much more of a desktop play than a server, part of Corel's comment on "the Web OS" subject sounded as if it had come straight from the card.

Ironically, had Mr. LeGrow called Linux "the graphics OS", he would certainly have corralled some attention - and without straying too far beyond the bounds of veracity, either. CorelDRAW 9 is due out in July of this year, as is CorelANIMATOR, boosting Linux graphics capabilities beyond those currently offered by the GIMP and Photogenics, for example. While some of the effects displayed by Mr. LeGrow seemed to be completely the province of graphic designers with too much time on their hands (watching the series of zippered effects, cyclone effects and bug splats inflicted on the body on an innocent, five-pointed star was especially dizzying), the software's ability to switch into and out of different modes and tools, as well as the use of masks to make global changes, was as impressive a Linux graphics display as is likely to be seen - at least until CorelDRAW 10.

In addition to CorelDRAW, Corel PhotoPaint will be available as a free download in June, underscoring Corel's Macintosh-like slogan "software for the creative soul". And to the tune of booming corp-hop (that strange brand of pseudo hip-hop music used primarily in corporate marketing promotions), Corel boosters slam-dunked, windsurfed and snowboarded their way through a demonstration of WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux. Introducing WordPerfect 0 as Corel's "flagship product", blue-shirted Corel boosters carried the banner of Corel's ease-of-use obsession. There are more wizards in this software than in a Tolkien boxed set: graphical wizards, installation wizards ... special icons and effects, including an auto-scroll function with adjustable speeds for laptop users and those working with intelli-mice. Document formatting was among the features Corel seemed most intent on promoting, with a real-time preview function on one hand and the old-fashioned "reveal codes" on the other.

But one of the big surprises with Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux was the inclusion of top-quality editing and proofreading tools. As I was told by a writer from No Starch Press, editing and proofreading tools available on Microsoft Word have kept many editorial offices from making the switch to Linux. In fact, if there is any place where a fully functional word processor with editing tools is important, that place is on an editor's desk. Whether more editorial staffs will be encouraged to adopt a Linux solution like Corel's office suite remains to be seen. But now, one of the biggest barriers has finally been lifted.

And the price tag for the Professional edition, which includes the RMDBS Paradox, is another barrier made to disappear: $160 USD. The Standard edition, without the database but including everything else, is only $110 USD. Given the ability to read documents seamlessly from Microsoft Word to Wordstar (?!), Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux provides a far easier route for most people looking for a powerful, affordable and familiar office-suite product.

email: david@ssc.com

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