Why Novell Must Not Crash and Burn

Not since SCO has there been a company so reviled by the open source community as Novell following its deal with Microsoft. Already there are some clear signs of the negative effects of that anger: senior coders have left the company; Novell has posted a loss for the most recent quarter; and there are calls for a boycott of Novell products – to say nothing of imminent changes to the GNU GPL that might well nullify the entire Novell-Microsoft deal. Some people are rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of Novell crashing and burning completely, but such a development could actually turn out to be one of the worst things to happen to free software.

One reason why Novell has had so much vitriol heaped upon it is that until that deal with Microsoft, it seemed to be a company that really got open source. After clinging on too long to its fading NetWare product – and resisting open standards in the shape of TCP/IP – it started to get serious about open source. In August 2003 it bought Ximian, the company founded by Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman, and then the leading European distribution, SuSE, Red Hat's main rival. This seemed to establish Novell as one of the top two open source companies, with good prospects of profiting nicely from the burgeoning business use of free software.

Novell's finest hour was when SCO took the decision in March 2003 to sue IBM:

The SCO Group, the owner of the UNIX operating system, announced today that it has filed legal action against IBM in the State Court of Utah, for misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference, unfair competition and breach of contract. The complaint alleges that IBM made concentrated efforts to improperly destroy the economic value of UNIX, particularly UNIX on Intel, to benefit IBM's new Linux services business.


In 1995, SCO purchased the rights and ownership of UNIX and UnixWare that had been originally owned by AT&T. This included source code, source documentation, software development contracts, licenses and other intellectual property that pertained to UNIX-related business. SCO became the successor in interest to the UNIX software licenses originally licensed by AT&T Bell Laboratories to all UNIX distributors, including HP, IBM, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, and many others.

SCO's action was based on its purchase of “the rights and ownership of UNIX and UnixWare



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Novell should at least try

Anonymous's picture

Whatever Novell does, it must involve a serious apology for what it did and a new commitment to promoting and acting on the message that software freedoms and licenses are to be respected and not worked around. Merely investing in more software development does nothing; they need to regain trust.

Appeal will not fly

Anonymous's picture

It's an interesting but flawed defense of Novell. In any case, Microsoft has already shown a willingness to attack GNU/Linux. Such conditions might be made a litte better or a little worse, and in a demise of Novell with Microsoft buying up those assets, we might assume a little worse. So what? Is it the straw that breaks the camel's back? I see no reason at all to think so, especially given that Linux is not Unix, in many ways that this article fails to acknowledge. Moreover, IBM and many other companies would clearly have an interest in stepping up again and fighting the good fight. Court action is likely regardless of Novell's existence.

OTOH, the article does acknowledge that the shunning of Novell has been real. Novell has been asked repeatedly to back out of the patent agreement but to no avail, so they can go to hell. Mere corporations are beneath the concern about the licenses (such as the GPL2 that they circumvented) that protect developers.

Not just Microsoft

Glyn Moody's picture

This isn't meant as a defence of Novell, it's merely asking whether the demise of Novell might not have negative consequences for free software. It's true that IBM and others would doubtless get involved, and that might act as a brake on Microsoft. But there are other threats.

For example, imagine a patent troll buying up the patents and copyrights. It would have nothing to fear from retaliatory action by other patent holders, since it wouldn't produce any code.

Yes, the patents might eventually be thrown out, but any such case would cause some serious FUD. Perhaps it would be better to find a way to bring Novell back into the fold rather than simply trying to destroy it.


Zegarki Seiko's picture

This is right.

Regaining Good Graces? Easily done.

helios's picture

"Novell needs to acknowledge it's failure, and regain the respect of the free software community. I don't know how they'd do that - maybe using their dollars to aggressively promote desktop Linux?"

Bingo. Jackpot. You are a winner!

An aggressive media blitz of the Linux Desktop is overdue. While there is at least one community-based entity attempting to make this happen, they have neither the money or the media exposure to get it done. it's going to be an uphill battle to include the Linux Community in any effort such as this due to our seeming inability to agree on much of anything. Wrong?

Is it Linux or GNU/Linux? 10 years have past and we're still arguing over this point alone.

Novell needs to start with major Television, Radio and glossy print advertising of Linux. Linux not only as an operating system, but as a concept, as the representative market force for FOSS in general. I am willing to bet and even volunteer every second of my available time to such effort. Unfortunately, until someone with the money and recognized Star Power such as Novell does it, it won't happen to the degree necessary.

This would indeed bring Novell back into the fold so to speak.

Stop complaining and do something!

Anonymous's picture

This "all powerful community" that we all are part of, that created this wonderful Linux OS and ecosystem of users, could be far more powerful on it's own than you know.

I know it's asking us to move a mountain, but if the community were to all agree on a single "desktop" of choice for Linux, that would allow the community to concentrate its efforts and voice to help market that ONE Linux desktop.

Instead, the community values freedom of choice and customization. There's NOTHING wrong with that! However, it does stand in the way of the goal that we all seem to share... getting Linux to be popular on the desktop.

Think about it... Novell's done a lot of development on the desktop for the enterprise marketplace (they're the ones with the money if you remember)... so if "everyone" suddenly decided to support their desktop we WOULD have that market momentum and ALSO have that "Star Power" that you mention. Of course, many in the marketplace would have to take back all the nasty things they like to say about Novell so they can get on the same page as the rest of us.

What if we picked a different distro? Fine, except we'll be starting from scratch (or source, in this case), and we won't have the "Star Power" that you speak of.

Instead of working together, we're a mob. We all have our favorite distros and favorite ways of doing things... and every chance we get we bicker over which desktop is "cooler". So until ONE of the THOUSANDS of Linux distributions gets enough CASH to do the marketing and do it right... I'll just curl up into a ball and imagine what that world would be like.

We moved to the next page,

Anonymous's picture

We moved to the next page, your still on the old one and we chose ubuntu... the community voted 80% for ubuntu in the Dell poll and I see no reason to push SuSE 'not interesting in' Linux when ubuntu is more than enough force.

Helios - Some good points.

Anonymous's picture

Helios -
Some good points. Here's my take: The Free Software nuts cause at least as much damage to Linux adoption as Microsoft does. Notice also that I don't use the term "GNU/Linux". That's no more accurate than "X.org/Linux", and one more example of how skewed the perspective of this crowd tends to be. All the freedom in the world is worth nothing if nobody uses your code. And they haven't figured out yet that they're not big enough to use the same draconian control tactics as Microsoft to accomplish their ends, no matter how noble their claimed goals are.

Ok, I'll get off my soapbox and back on track . . . YES! Novell would be wise to jump with both feet into advertising Linux (server, desktop, or otherwise). And given the profit they've made on it, they should give back that way. But the simple fact is - as anyone familiar with that company can tell you - they can't market their way out of a wet paper sack. Novell and Microsoft have had legal problems with each other in the past, and Novell always comes out good (good lawyers - if there is such a thing). So I'm not too worried about the legal implications of this deal, but they REALLY need to work on marketing their new platform of choice, and give some PR love back to the community.

Actually, I see several good reasons for the deal. Increased adoption, publicity, interoperability, assurance to the customer that they won't get sued (yes, I know - it's pure smoke, but that's exactly the kind of FUD my boss looses sleep over). Novell realizes that Linux is at the core of it's future. They won't intentionally do anything to screw that up.

As for the whole patent thing, it's not really that relevant. Andy Updegrove did a great article on the subject on his standards blog site. just search for "Through the Patent Looking Glass with Microsoft's Brad Smith." Read through that, and it becomes fairly evident that the big stink the FSF and more fanatic members of the community make about the "EVIL PATENT ISSUE" just harms the free software and open source communities, and ultimately linux adoption as a whole.

It does advertise

Anonymous's picture

Have you seen a Red Hat advertisement? No. I see Novell advertising constantly. Wall Street Journal, NY Times, all over the web. Novell advertises where it can with the resources it has. Remember that Novell is a technology company, not a media or marketing company. A lot of it's profits (look that the recent filings) is returned to R&D (hence the huge contributions to OSS).

You, above all, Helios should know by now that the "Linux Community" is no community at all. If it were, it could be a dominating powerhouse since it's members far exceed any organization in business today.

I agree

Josiah's picture

Just thought I'd write that I agree. I've been concerned that the Open Source community has been over looking this all along. Novell may have made one giant mistake, but c'mon! Do we have to shoot our wounded? What do we gain? Not much compared to what we loose, and I'm not talking about Microsoft IP.

I fear that we've already lost Novell because of our reaction to their deal. I'm sure the average suit must think we look like a bunch of babies because they don't understand the underlying philosophy upon which we object to the deal. To them, we're crying about what happens around them daily.

Novell is nothing special

Anonymous's picture

As the comment with the seven numbered points indicated, Novell's problem is poor management. It's really hard to argue with that point. While more aggressive marketing for desktop GNU/Linux may be a fine idea, it is foolish to expect that a company with such a poor track record will be the right choice. Why not Canonical (Ubuntu)?

points made...

helios's picture

You, above all, Helios should know by now that the "Linux Community" is no community at all.

Oh, For the love of sweet Molly Milkmaid, trust me on this one, I do. I have simply not come up with a better term for the inclusive gathering.

Quarrelsome, dysfunctional family?
Timothy-Leary-following, Birkenstock-wearing tie-dyed throwbacks?

All in fun, please don't take offense. I fit into each of the above groups at one time or another myself. We are attempting to do the impossible with thetuxproject.com but who knows...it may fly, it may not. I will add that Microsoft is a software company too, but they manage to get ads on the Television on a fairly regular basis.

We don't need any more ads in The Wall Street Journal or The Linux Journal. We need them between My name is Earl and Dancing with the Stars. Do you have any idea how many people don't know they have a choice? Any idea of how many people are sick of having to purchase software in order for the software they already purchased to work?

I work in a hyper-busy tech support management position and I read/listen to the transcripts daily. Hundreds of them. Microsoft glitches and spyware invasions are 70 percent of the problem. Although we do support Linux on many of the services we work for, rarely do we get a call for technical support. If any, it's not understanding how to set their smtp server properly.

Shuttleworth isn't going to put Ubuntu or Linux on the airwaves. I've asked him and he has said he isn't even remotely entertaining the idea. This thing called Linux is dying for the lack of oxygen. What I find most sickening is that those who claim to have the interests of "Linux" at heart are standing there with the O2 cannister in their hands and won't move one step toward the prone twitching body.

Novell is indeed positioned to make this happen. For what ever reason, they choose not to.

Define "poor track record"

Anonymous's picture

If I were a shareholder, I'd probably agree... but the fact remains that Novell's desktop distribution has won more awards and gotten more recognition in the press and in the business marketplace than just about all the other desktop distros combined. They also have a growing list of success stories with tens of thousands of adopters of their desktop.

Canonical has got potential, but they also don't have the "paying" market presence that Novell has. We'd be starting from scratch. Ugh.

Good points

Anonymous's picture

OK, so Novell has a market presence, and that could make all the difference. At the very least, Novell management might be able to convince themselves that a bigger push in the desktop direction is a risk worth taking. I cannot see Canonical being able to convince themselves on this point--not yet, anyway.

Regarding Novell's management, I am still bothered about Novell's CEO change that preceded their deal with Microsoft.