Five years later, Michael Cowpland comments on Corel’s future

The appeal hasn’t shrunk, says Cowpland, only the size of the interface. He claims the future of personal IT won’t necessarily be the computer but the cell phone.

Cowpland left Corel Corp., the firm he helped build, in 2000 to take on the chief role at Zim Corp. a year later. He left the desktop world behind to create cell phone applications, a shift he sees the entire world undertaking at some point.

As per Cowpland’s latest credo, last week Zim bought American mobile content company Advanced Internet Services Inc., owners of and

“There’s maybe two billion cell phones as opposed to maybe half a billion desktops,” he says. “I think the field I’m now in has huge potential because the phone is becoming the new computer. That’s the new desktop.”

Corel saw its market share continue to dwindle after Cowpland’s departure. The firm, its stock price in tatters, was snapped up by investment firm Vector Holdings in 2003, much to the chagrin of a number of vocal shareholders, including Cowpland himself.

Earlier this week, Corel said it plans to go public again and has filed notice of a forthcoming IPO. caught up with Cowpland to talk to him about the possibility of him becoming a shareholder once more and the future of Zim. Has the perception of Corel changed, with the company going private, then back to public a few years later?

Michael Cowpland: You have to wonder why they bothered going private. It forced shareholders out unnecessarily, because there was all that cash in the bank in the first place. It seems that that was an unnecessary step for them, but it seems to have worked out successfully for them in the end.

ITB: But they still seem to be losing a market share battle with Microsoft for desktop software.

MC: I think the corner has been turned and the battle has been worthwhile because Corel has emerged as one of the big three software desktop companies. Really their only competition is Adobe and Microsoft on the desktop. I think that’s a good success factor at this point. It seems that a lot of their strategies have paid off. Word Perfect is still the most viable alternative to Microsoft Office. I think with the extra user base they’ve got with Winzip, they’ve got an extra marketing base. Critical mass is very important. (Editor’s note: Vector, the San Francisco investment company that currently owns 98 per cent of Corel, bought WinZip in 2005.) That’s one of the things we always pushed for a Corel having a huge global user base. That was one of the reasons for buying WordPerfect. WordPerfect had 40 million users.

They don’t have the market share, but even being a small second is still good.

ITB: Were you still a Corel shareholder when the privatization deal went through?

MC: Yes. I was obviously against the privatization, but I got outvoted.

ITB: Would you be interested in becoming a Corel shareholder again?

MC: Possibly. It looks like a pretty good situation.

ITB: Do you still feel any affection for Corel?

MC: Definitely. Absolutely. It was a tremendous amount of fun and it’s very good to see it continuing to succeed.

ITB: Do you ever regret leaving the company?

MC: No, not really. I was interested in getting into a smaller situation and I’m having a lot of fun now with Zim. It’s a very interesting field: combining telecom and software content. I enjoy the environment of a smaller company.

ITB: Would you ever consider getting back into the desktop software market?

MC: Not really. We’re at the point where the market has shaken out to two or three big players, and I’m very happy that Corel is one of them. I’m very glad I got into the telephony market.

ITB: How has the acquisition of Advanced Internet Services affected the future of Zim?

MC: Now we have and it’s one of the top 10 portals in mobile content, which is giving us a very good launch pad. We’ve built our platform with SMS messaging, but it’s kind of plateaued now a bit. Now we’re moving into ringtones, rich content and animation. That’s looks like it’s full of growth potential.

ITB: There seems to be an awful lot of start-up companies popping up around this. Would it be to fair characterize cellular telephony as this era’s dot-com market?

MC: Definitely. It’s gigantic and of course it’s growing a huge amount. There’s roughly 800 million new phones each year. Even in the developing world, it’s getting to the point where everybody has a phone. The other thing that’s great is that it’s opening up like the Internet. Originally each cell carrier kept their customers behind the walled garden, as they called it. Opening up SMS was the first step. Now there’s more companies like Cingular in the U.S., who have fully opened up their network to rich content. In the last few weeks, Verizon has also opened up their network. The idea of cell companies trying to keep their customers monopolized is getting obsolete. It opens up opportunities for third parties to provide rich content to those two billion users. There are 500 cell phone companies worldwide. If it was just a patchwork, it would be very difficult to break in, but now it’s getting to be an open network, just like the Internet is open worldwide.

ITB: Does the growth of the 3G market open up more opportunities for you?

MC: Yes, exactly. Obviously the more bandwidth the better. You can do more interesting things with phones. The Motorola RAZR, for example, has been a huge hit because people like the fact that the RAZR is like a little iPod really. The new iPod will be the phone.

ITB: How do think that change will occur?

MC: In the same way that the phone took over the digital camera market. There’s far more phones with cameras now. In the same way, the next generation of phones will have the same capabilities of an iPod. You’ll be downloading the music right to your phone. There’s no need to have two devices when one can do the job.

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