Stone, unturned

You’ve heard of the new New Economy — well, this is the new New Novell.

Just over a year ago, Novell attempted to reinvent itself as a solutions-driven company when it bought consulting firm Cambridge Technology Partners for US$266 million. The timing was problematic since the initial

announcement occurred just weeks before the company’s annual user conference, BrainShare. Reporters covering the event were begging for details on how this would fit into Novell’s image as an old guard software house, but were shut down at every turn. This wasn’t exactly the best way to instill confidence in the New Novell.

Now we’ve come to the new New Novell. The company has brought back Chris Stone — who left to lead his own firm three years ago — to be its vice-chairman and public face. Stone was part of the late ’90s Novell, the glory days when its NetWare operating system was riding high. Since then NetWare has lost so much ground to Linux, Windows NT, and then Windows 2000, it becomes almost an afterthought if you’re compiling a list of major OSes. Stone appears to recognize this, though, and may be the man to actually do something about it — he’s giving it away.

When I interviewed Stone at BrainShare in Salt Lake City, this week, he said, “”Why the hell wouldn’t we do that? These are issues I’ve got to deal with.”” It was almost a reproach to the company’s actions in his three-year absence.

He’s also promising to start finding OEM partners to deliver software and hinted he’d like to team eDirectory with Linux and start running it on IBM hardware.

Stone speaks like a businessman, which is what this company needs. Former CEO Eric Schmidt helped Novell reach a high point three or four years ago, but he didn’t seem to know how to prevent the company’s decline. The good ship Novell had become such a rudderless beast that by the turn of the millennium, no one could steer it.

Rather than tilting at the wheel ’til he’s blue in the face, Stone’s breaking up the fleet. He’s giving away the flagship, NetWare, and moving eDirectory out front. He’s also planning to re-arrange the rest of Novell’s products so they’ll snap together into groups that can be sold as packages — which is something the rest of the software industry learned years ago.

Another lesson Stone has picked up on — from the likes of Sun Microsystems and Oracle — is bashing the competition. In his opening BrainShare keynote he screened an advertisement which depicted a boy flying over grassy fields, a la Microsoft’s Windows XP ads, while a Microsoft employee looks on from his desktop machine. After a few seconds of blissful soaring, the boy stalls then plummets to the ground and the employee curses as his server crashes. This is precisely the kind of pointless criticism and braggadocio Stone should leave to Larry Ellison — since he’s really the only high-tech leader capable of pulling it off — but at least he’s wise to the need for marketing.

One year after the Cambridge takeover, Novell has vastly improved its ability to articulate a message. “”We’ve spent too much time singing to the choir,”” Stone said. “”What we have to do is follow the money.”” Novell, post-Cambridge, has also produced a trio of leaders that put me in mind of the Bond movies. Stone, of course, is Bond — the wheeler and dealer, ready to sweet talk his way into the graces of IBM and others. CEO Jack Messman is, appropriately enough, M — Bond’s rarely-seen boss who pulls the strings behind the scenes (he was absent from BrainShare this year due to illness). That leaves CTO Carl Ledbetter as Q the gadget-maker. It’s Ledbetter’s responsibility to re-arrange Novell’s engineering and development teams so they can produce solutions-driven products.

The resolution of every Bond film is always the same: 007, through the machinations of M and the toys of Q, thwarts a megalomaniac bent on taking over the world. Stone recognizes that Novell’s turnaround is at least a few years away, but at least he’s accepted the mission.

Neil Sutton is an staff writer. Shane Schick returns on Monday.

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