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Novell advocates open source

The Linux convert proclaims its strong support for open-source programming--but made the case for a pragmatic approach that blends in its own proprietary applications.

NEW YORK--Linux convert Novell proclaimed its strong support for open-source programming Wednesday, but made the case for a pragmatic approach that blends in its own proprietary applications.

"I think it's critical to get beyond religious wars," Novell Chief Executive Jack Messman said in his opening keynote speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. "The two can and must coexist for some time. This is good, not bad."

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Novell has no plans to open the source code of software such as its GroupWise e-mail server product, said Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone. But the company said it does plan to cooperate with programmers and that the open-source movement is expanding from today's foundational products, such as Linux, to higher-level software.

"As the open-source development effort moves up the stack, that will capture where we are today," Messman said in a press conference after his speech. "It makes sense for us to contribute to (open-source software), rather than for them to have to invent it."

The statements were the first view many in the open-source world had of the stance of the company, which in 2003 began an aggressive move to embrace Linux after its NetWare operating system lost out to Microsoft in the 1990s.

Novell bought its way into the Linux market, completing earlier this month its $210 million acquisition of SuSE. And in 2003, it acquired Ximian, which specializes in Linux software for desktop computers, such as a connector that lets Linux computers retrieve e-mail, contacts and calendar information from Microsoft's Exchange server software.

IBM strongly backed the SuSE acquisition, pledging a $50 million investment in Novell contingent on the deal's closing. SuSE was the first Linux seller to support IBM's entire server line--a much broader collection of products than the Intel processor-based systems in which Linux is most common.

Messman's statements also illustrate the cultural difficulties of embracing open-source software, a challenge he believes other companies will have to face sooner or later.

Novell had "a bad case of not-invented-here syndrome"--in which companies shun technology not of their own making--so it's been difficult to accept the collaborative realities of open-source programming, Messman said.

"Because Novell was a proprietary software company, the move to Linux has required some incredible changes for us," he said. "It's a big change going from writing code with friends down the hall to writing code with others you've never seen and potentially thousands of miles away."

Stone, however, said the company must be judicious in selecting which software it releases as open source. "You don't just throw it out there to see if it sticks," he said.

Novell plans to release software that dovetails with the Open Source Development Labs' Data Center Linux and Carrier-Grade Linux projects, Stone added. "Parts of our directory strategy may be applicable there. Parts of our development environment may be applicable there. We clearly will do something in that space."

There are business challenges as well for a hybrid model. Novell will have to juggle its GroupWise software with the open-source OpenExchange product it acquired with SuSE. Stone said GroupWise will be positioned for large customers and OpenExchange for small and medium-size customers.

In contrast to SuSE, top Linux seller Red Hat espouses a pure open-source model. However, it has tight partnerships with companies such as IBM and Oracle that have proprietary software.

GroupWise began as software that ran atop Novell NetWare, but the company on Wednesday began a testing program for the Linux version, which is expected to be final in the first half of the year, Messman said.

Firing back at SCO
In the press conference, Messman criticized SCO Group's lawsuit filed Tuesday against Novell. The suit seeks to establish ownership of Unix copyrights--a key step in SCO's demands that Linux customers pay to use the software.

"This lawsuit illustrates that SCO's campaign against enterprise adoption of Linux is foundering. It seems litigation is now becoming SCO's principle mode of business," Messman said. "Novell intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit."

SCO's moves have disrupted, at least on paper, one Linux partnership: the UnitedLinux consortium. That group of four companies--SuSE, SCO, Conectiva and Turbolinux--agreed to base their Linux products on SuSE's version to simplify certification tasks for hardware and software companies.

SCO, which now is attacking Linux and its intellectual property foundations, refuses to withdraw from UnitedLinux, Richard Seibt, SuSE's CEO, said in the press conference.

"There's no value for us to work in the UnitedLinux corporation," Seibt said. "This doesn't mean we're not focusing on continuing with the development relationship we have with Turbolinux and Conectiva."

Messman said 2004 will be the year in which Linux becomes a mainstream operating system for business users and that its use on desktop computers will follow soon after.

"Now it's in the early adopter phase, with pilots everywhere," he said. "As a company, we can barely keep up with all the RFQs and RFPs," or requests for price quotes and proposals for desktop software.

Novell wants to be the top Linux desktop seller, Stone added. "It's clearly the goal of ours to be the market leader on the desktop over time."