80% on Novell

I'm not perfect. My post recently proves this.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

OK, so sometimes I'm wrong. Miguel de Icaza called out an error I made in criticizing Novell for its open-source strategy. I admit that I find it hard to see beyond Novell's patent pact with Microsoft but, as Miguel pointed out in a string of emails between us today (which he graciously allowed me to cite), this leaves out a lot that Novell does well. And perhaps better than its open-source competitors (though he was too diplomatic to take shots).

Keep in mind when you read this blog that I never intentionally misrepresent anyone or any company. That said, I sometimes make mistakes. As my daughter said after a soccer game the other day, trying to convey to me just how hard she'd worked in the game (despite her team losing):

But Dad, I played so hard! I gave 80%!!

Sometimes my best, too, is equal to 80%, and that's not good enough. [Btw, I told my daughter to never tell her coach she's playing at 80%. That's a quick route to the bench. :-) ]

So, which Novell does Miguel see? His answers surprised me, because they reveal a lot more open-source work than I would have known to give Novell credit, even despite Justin Steinman once cataloguing Novell's open-source efforts on this blog.

Here is a list of just a few things that Novell does well:

  • Trajectory. Novell went from being 100% proprietary and from having a lot of internal hard-liners against open source to having a full division of open source development (the "OPS" team) and even making inroads in the Identity group and the Resource Management groups.
    This is a highly important point to which I've been largely blind. I guess I hold Novell to a higher standard than most (You don't see me regularly calling out SAP or HP, for example) because it's my alma mater. But, taking my blinders off, it's clear that Novell is making progress in its open-source efforts. It's heading in the right direction, and more quickly than I have acknowledged.

  • Novell writes good open source code. Or, more accurately stated, the code quality is quite high. As Miguel noted, Novell's work gets repackaged into a wide array of distributions/projects.
    Novell gets scant credit for this, but it's a testament to the quality of the code that distributions carry Novell's OpenOffice packages, for example, while no one (of which I'm aware) ships Sun's OpenOffice. This is not to denigrate Sun (a company for which I have growing respect), but rather to give kudos for the quality of work that Novell does. (Note, however, that this is not always the case. I don't think the JBoss team were bowled over by Novell's contributions to the application server, but nobody's perfect.)
    For that matter, while we all credit Ubuntu with Compiz (and Xgl), it was actually Novell that wrote these. Maybe Novell needs to be better at taking credit? Or maybe that's one of its virtues...a lack of self-aggrandizement?
    From my days at Novell, I was always proud of the engineering within the company. The company sometimes couldn't execute its way out of a paper bag, but its engineering was superlative. I believe Novell's engineers, now turned to open source, continue to write great code. Perhaps the business execution sometimes gets in the way of people like me seeing it....

  • Novell's engineering may be out in front of market adoption. I don't think I have to go far out on a limb to suggest that no one does better Linux desktop engineering (and associated Linux desktop market execution) than Novell. Period. The problem has been that there isn't a big market there. At least, not yet.
    I suspect that this contributes to my own myopia on Novell. I spend a lot of time thinking about the server market, and not much at all thinking about the desktop. For me, the perfect destkop has already been built: Mac OS X. Yes, I know of the inconsistencies in this (I'm a free source bigot and Apple may well be the most proprietary company on the planet, in more ways than source code). I just can't help it.

Net net: I'm going to work on seeing Novell with less bite and more neutrality. It's admittedly very hard for me. I'm not sure why, since I was fantastically treated by Novell. (The only thing that ever annoyed me within the company - beyond a lack of market execution - was that I tried to get fired the month before I left because I wanted severance, and the company refused to lay me off. :-) But I commit to try to provide a more balanced view on Novell.

Until, of course, when I don't. At that point, I fully expect Miguel, Bruce Lowry (Novell's exceptional PR lead), and others to challenge me. That's what makes this a dialogue, rather than a monologue.