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Novell woos faithful at BrainShare

After Novell's BrainShare '97 user conference, many still wonder what the future holds.

    SALT LAKE CITY--Amid pyrotechnics, gyrating dancers, and throbbing rock music, Novell (NOVL) president and chief operating officer Joseph Marengi kicked off the BrainShare '97 conference last week with the hope that the 6,000 attendees would witness a new company. Many did, but they are still wondering what the future holds for the company.

    Given Marengi's entrance, a purported evolution at the $1.4 billion software giant was hard to miss. For the past two years, the Provo, Utah-based company has offered a barrel of mixed messages, failed strategies, and accompanying executive shuffles to the market.

    The company's muddled state has given way to relative prosperity on the strategy front, with new agreements announced to partner with Internet player Netscape Communications and database giant Oracle, as well as a new focus based around four product families. But the networking market has not yet warmed to the new focus, and the financial community, in turn, has remained skeptical. The company's stock is floundering at around $10 per share.

    Analysts say vision is what Novell needs. Hiring Sun Microsystems chief technology officer Eric Schmidt is viewed by most as a master stroke. Many believe that he has the creative qualities needed to articulate Novell's network-centric view of the world at a time when networking is the fastest-growing segment of the computer industry. Schmidt has made it clear that Marengi will have a role in his management team, focusing on the day-to-day operations of the company.

    Recent developments--including a slew of new technologies at the conference--may bode well for the future. "Sometimes a company has the right idea but needs the right conditions in place to be successful," observed Jean Bozman, an analyst at market researcher International Data Corporation.

    "I think Novell is going to survive," added Bill Sigsbury, a systems engineer for the Bay State Computer Group. "I think they're actually going to do quite well by the end of the year. They just need to get the word out. I was a little concerned."

    Sigsbury's sentiments were echoed by many developers here, who hope the company can get it right with new licensing deals for its Novell Directory Services technology.

    Novell hopes to drive into new markets and expand its market share using NDS and the cross-platform Java programming language. The company has spread Java throughout its product line in the hopes that long-stalled application development for the IntranetWare platform can be energized by Java's ease of use and cross-platform architecture.

    Developer satisfaction among Novell's user base two years ago was 43 percent, according to Gary Mueller, vice president of developer services at Novell. That figure, based on internal research, has grown to 96 percent. "We've really turned around their attitude," he said.

    Novell is attempting to disseminate its directory to as many networks as possible, offering the source code and basic services for free and signing agreements with Sun Microsystems, the Santa Cruz Operation, and Hewlett-Packard to bundle NDS with their operating systems. An agreement with IBM is also expected.

    Novell also hopes to use a forthcoming port of NDS to Windows NT to drive the product into volume Intel-based server bundles from companies such as Dell Computer and Compaq Computer, according to Michael Simpson, director of marketing for Novell's Internet Infrastructure Division.

    "No one is going to compete with us in the directory space," said Simpson, expressing a confidence that has been rarely heard from Novell in recent years.

    Marengi predicted that the company's server operating system business would grow from its current 4 million servers to 8 million by the year 2000. He also said he expects ten percent growth in international sales, with those markets composing 60 percent of revenue by the end of the century.

    He also said operating system revenue will account for 30 percent of the company's receipts by the new millennium, buttressed by 30 percent revenue from network services such as NDS and collaboration tools such as GroupWise. The remaining ten percent will consist of technical services and educational programs.

    Those seem to be lofty goals for a firm that has shown only tentative abilities for strong growth recently.

    At an executive question-and-answer session for attendees, the frustration stemming from the company's recent missteps and marketing malaise was readily apparent. One user asked the panel: "How can you make it safe again to choose Novell?" A Boise, Idaho-based reseller wondered why he is not in the loop on Novell's strategic directions. Those connections, he said, would make it a lot easier to sell the company's products.

    But Novell executives remain bullish on the company's future. "I think it comes down to relatively simple issues of getting the message out and talking to people about what's really going on, showing the successes that we've got and solving customer problems," said Glenn Ricart, Novell's chief technology officer. "We do that better than anybody else in so many areas."

    "It's time to stop apologizing," added Richard Nortz, director of Novell's technical services. "We're not going to do it anymore."

    Novell chief scientist Drew Major closed the conference with a folksy overview of the new Novell technologies that were released during the week. Dressed in an Oxford shirt and slacks, the primary architect of NetWare serves as the company's bridge between its past and its future.

    But the overriding question that dominates Novell in the eyes of analysts is whether the company can turn its technology into a message that users easily understand so that a huge installed base can feel confident in continuing to use Novell's products and new customers can be attracted to the fold. Everything may be connected, as Novell's mantra goes, but with what?