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Novell sets sights on 'complete Linux desktop'

Taking a page from the Microsoft playbook, the software maker says the open-source operating system should be "widespread" on PCs within the next 12 months.

SALT LAKE CITY--In the 1990s, Microsoft defeated Novell in the market for server operating systems. Now Novell is taking the battle back to Redmond, Wash., launching an attack on Microsoft's desktop stronghold.

"We're focusing on building a complete Linux desktop as an alternative to what you've been using," Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone told Novell loyalists at the company's BrainShare conference here. "We believe that in the next 12 months, we will see the widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop."

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The desktop Linux push will include software from SuSE Linux, the No. 2 Linux seller that Novell acquired in January for $210 million, and Ximian, the Linux desktop specialist that Novell acquired in August.

The acquisitions marked a bold departure for the Waltham, Mass.-based company, which has struggled for years to wean itself from its own NetWare operating system despite declining use and revenue. At the same time, Novell, a prior owner of the Unix operating system originally developed by AT&T, is on the front lines countering the SCO Group's legal attack on Linux, arguing that Novell still owns Unix copyrights.

Novell is using the Linux change to restore itself for its developers, sales partners and customers.

"Novell is back," Chief Executive Jack Messman declared, raising his fists in triumph during his keynote speech. "We felt we were still around. But many of our customers thought we had gone dark in many respects," he acknowledged in a news conference after the speech.

With the desktop move, Novell plans to turn against Microsoft the same weapon that the Redmond, Wash., software giant used against Novell: a tight coupling between applications that run on the desktop and those that run on the server. Microsoft competed against Novell in part by building technology into Windows desktop machines that could connect easily to Windows servers for tasks such as storing files or tracking a company's computing assets.

"We think it's the optimization of what happens between the desktop and the server that creates the value-add for us," Messman said. "We have been the victim of that."

Microsoft didn't immediately comment on Novell's plans.

The emphasis on desktop software likely won't change Novell's overall focus on server software, however. "The units are going to be bigger on the desktop, but the profits are going to be bigger on the server," Messman said.

Torvalds raises a specter
Signaling the extent of the company's Linux commitment, Novell flew Linux founder and leader Linus Torvalds out to share the stage with Stone and Messman. He offered a brief comment on Novell's potential, saying, "You guys can be the next big thing." But he confined most of his remarks to Linux generalities.

Torvalds' biggest worries were legal, not technical, he said. "The things that tend to worry me are things like software patents, where nontechnical issues can be used to stop developers, to stop people from doing what they want," Torvalds said.

Novell is trying to sell a balanced collection of open-source and proprietary software, with open-source projects such as Linux forming the foundation and proprietary software such as the company's technology for sharing files and managing computers on top.

Open-source software is developed cooperatively by programmers who share software. In the case of Linux, the operating system is developed by countless volunteers as well as programmers at SuSE; No. 1 Linux seller Red Hat; hardware companies including IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard; and software companies such as Oracle.

Though Novell expects to profit from its hybrid strategy, it promises not to leech off the open-source work of others. As expected, Messman announced Monday that YAST management and configuration technology will be released as an open-source project under the General Public License (GPL), a popular open-source license that governs Linux.

In addition, Novell will release under the GPL its iFolder software, which allows desktop machines to share and synchronize files with other machines, Messman said.

"Novell has made a commitment to give more to open source than we're taking away," he said.

Though Novell has become a Linux convert, it's not dropping NetWare, Messman said. "NetWare remains a great operating system, and Novell remains fully committed to its ongoing support and development," he said. "We are not dropping NetWare; we are adding Linux."

A new lease on life
But it's clear Novell considers Linux a new lease on life. It will begin sending NetWare customers who have software maintenance agreements a copy of SuSE Linux. The goal is to let customers choose whichever operating system they desire, he said.

By the end of the year, Novell will release the new NetWare 7--a full year earlier than it was expected. The new operating system will be a part of a larger product, Open Enterprise Server, that also includes Linux and a suite of higher-level network software components.

Novell doesn't just have its eyes on Microsoft. Red Hat also is a target. "Our goal is to be the No. 1 leader worldwide" in the Linux market, Stone said.

The company believes customers will be drawn to Novell's SuSE Linux because it offers indemnification from some legal attacks, better technology, and "a worldwide technical support organization bigger than their entire company," Stone said.

Red Hat, though, believes it will stay on top, citing its success with large customers and its partnerships with established computing companies. "Red Hat has faced tough competition and will continue to as the Linux market attracts new players," said company spokeswoman Leigh Day.