Novell's Messman Commits to Not Mess Up Open Source
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
"New York City in January is like an iceberg, and now I understand the choice of the Linux mascot," quipped Jack Messman, CEO and chairman of newly upstarted Linux player Novell in the opening keynote address at the LinuxWorld trade show in New York this week. In one short year, Novell has gone from being one of the biggest victims of the Linux and open source movements to what will turn out to be one of its biggest and most ardent champions. He laid out the case for open source and its inevitability in his address.
The challenges that Novell and the entire software industry faces when embracing or confronting open source are in many respects the same ones that corporations considering the adoption of open source technologies are staring down, said Messman. Novell, he explained, is a company that was founded in the 1980s on the idea of creating and selling proprietary software. Both vendors and customers want control--vendors have wanted intellectual property and account control, customers want to pick their platforms and control what software comes into their shops. The open source model is an anathema to this whole idea. Open source, he said, means collaborative, collective programming, increasing speed to market, and picking from a wide variety of software solution providers. This is something that would seem to be an unfriendly world to a proprietary software maker like Novell has been for two decades. It is.
Messman, addressing the Linux faithful, spent a lot of time this week demonstrating and professing his faith in the open source model, something that the top brass at IBM and Hewlett-Packard have done in past LinuxWorld keynotes. "We are placing a big bet on open source," he said. "We will not seek to change the open source model--we will embrace it. We in the community live and breathe it. But there are those in the industry," he said, referring to either The SCO Group or Microsoft or both, "that want to muddy the waters." At the end of his presentation, Messman stressed how Novell was now a citizen of the open source community and was fully committed to this movement, no matter how disruptive it is to the business models of established proprietary software players. "Novell will contribute more to open source than it takes away," he said, saying that the company would fill in gaps where it found them, particularly in fostering a desktop Linux environment that can compete with Windows and Unix desktops. "We will not mess this up," he declared. "Ximian and SuSE will not let us." Novell acquired Ximian, an expert in Linux desktop GUIs and other Linux systems programs, in August 2003 for an undisclosed amount; in November 2003, Novell paid $210 million in cash to buy SuSE, which is the number two commercial Linux distributor in the world and number one in a few markets.
He said that the 5,700 programmers at Novell have long since been "infected" with the open source "mojo" of the several dozen programmers from Ximian, and presumably the influx of people from SuSE will increase that mojo factor. But Novell, he said, is still adjusting to the realities of programming in open source mode. "It is a big change from writing code with your friends down the hall to doing it with hundreds of people around the world," he explained, adding that Novell had a bad case of "not invented here" syndrome. Open source might mean making less money per product or shifting from product sales to support services, but it increases the opportunities to deliver flexible solutions that span a large installed base of customers. "It is not only possible, but profitable, to build a business on open source."
As for the immediate future of Linux, Messman said that 2004 would be the year that Linux goes mainstream on the enterprise servers, and that shortly after that, it would begin to go mainstream on desktops. One of the big levers for Linux sales on both servers and desktops is going to be TCO. Messman cited TCO numbers that claim Linux can offer up to 80 percent lower ownership costs compared to Unix and that show Linux is about half the cost of Windows. He took a swipe at the latest TCO studies that show Windows is less costly than Linux, which Microsoft has been citing in its latest advertising campaigns. "There have been studies that show different numbers," he said. "But those studies have been funded by a special interest, and I will leave it at that."
The uptake of Linux on servers has been, he said, by and large confined to infrastructure workloads, but in 2004, Messman said he expected an increasing number of big customers deploying Linux running real mission-critical applications, not just edge print, file, and Web serving. How many customers and how much money this might generate is, quite frankly, anybody's guess, and whatever prospects Novell has in terms of generating money and profits from Linux, Messman kept the numbers to himself.
But clearly there are numbers, and for the naysayers that claim it is hard to make money from open source products that a company does not own, he counters that this is just not the case. "Red Hat and SuSE show that people will pay for 'free' software," he said. He explained that enterprises do not like change in their IT environments, but that open source software is continually changing and is at odds with this philosophy. Novell has correctly seen that a vendor that manages and packages that change and provides stable versions of open source products will give comfort to enterprises--and they will pay for that service. "CIOs want support from someone they can trust. One call, one throat to choke. That's all." Since different pieces of the open source software stack are developed and supported by different organizations, this presents something of a challenge to any Linux services company, whether it is Novell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, or Red Hat.
Any Linux conversation usually comes around to desktops, and Messman's speech and indeed the individual murmurings in the LinuxWorld press room (and probably among the tens of thousands of LinuxWorld attendees) spent a lot of time on the issue. The desktops we are all talking about are the same ones that HP CEO and chairman Carly Fiorina said that the Linux community should not chase in her LinuxWorld keynote a year ago. Several times in its history, Novell has tried to take on Microsoft, the desktop software juggernaut that has over 90 percent of the installed desktops and laptops in the world and now a dominant force in servers, and it has by and large failed. The acquisitions of WordPerfect, DR-DOS, and Unix System V were in one way or another all about taking on Microsoft on the desktop and in the server room. Messman said that Linux on the desktop is gaining traction, particularly in governments outside of the United States. "As a company, we can barely keep up with RFPs and RPQs in this area," said Messman.
The adoption of Linux in Europe and Asia on the desktop can, in some sense, be thought of as an early indicator of what could happen on desktops in the States. Similarly, Unix took off in Europe well ahead of the its adoption in the United States in the early 1990s, even thought the dominant Unix players at the time were located in the States at the time. The issue then had less to do with whether or not a vendor was indigenous to a local country than whether or not they supported the ideals of open systems. European companies, to their credit, understood what open systems would mean to simplifying their organizations and saving them money well ahead of their American counterparts. And if anything drives Linux onto the desktop, it will be the same good sense among companies anywhere in the world, should Linux desktop software and suites prove to be better, stronger, and faster than alternatives for Windows and Unix desktops. While Messman is clearly hopeful for Linux on the desktop, he concedes there is much work to be done. He said that Novell would be working the Open Source Development Lab to tweak Linux desktop software to make it indisputably a rival of the Windows-Office stack from Microsoft.
Talk at LinuxWorld inevitably comes back to intellectual property, because of the lawsuits flying around between SCO, IBM, Red Hat, and Novell. Messman said that simply because many parties in this tangle did not agree with the claims in these suits, that did not mean that IP issues were not important to vendors and customers. While no one can demonstrate that the SCO suits have diminished Linux sales (or might begin doing so if the suits go one way or the other), Messman said that the open source community had to do a better job explaining the IP protections that were "inherent" in open source programs and explaining the additional protections that companies like Novell, HP, Red Hat, and ODSL are now offering.
While Novell is embracing open source, Messman made no bones about the fact that the company will continue to sell and support proprietary software. He said that there were a lot of deeply held beliefs concerning proprietary software and open source, and that people should "get beyond religious wars" and realize that the two approaches not only will, but should, co-exist for some time.