Novell is dead and Microsoft has eaten its heart

Acquisition puts what's left of Novell's legacy in Microsoft's hands

Novell is dead.  

OK, it's been dead for a while. Close to dead; undead.

Geeks of a certain age remember Novell as the first company that really got networking for normal people. OK, not normal, normal people, but not intense Unix geeks or mainframe deadenders, either.

It snuck into places nothing more sophisticated than PCs and word processors had ever been before, and helped wake up users to what computers could really do for them them, not the smug computer operators who were treated like priests and made clear the computers would help users only if they users chose to do things in the way computers decreed.

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NetWare was the original rogue IT project, launched as a way to turn around a bankrupt computer maker by a Californicated GE engineer returning to his roots in Utah, and written by a contractor who was as revered by geeks in his time as Linus Torvalds, but was twice as unintelligible.

Ray Noorda, credited with helping launch a major IT revolution in Utah, launched another one in corporate America, which suddenly realized it could do things with computers it had never considered before -- sharing a printer; sharing a file; sharing an off-the-shelf application they could actually use, rather than the incomprehensible objet d'art IT would hand-code over months and deliver without Help files, lists of commands or (pfah!) training.

NetWare was big. There was nothing else like it, except all the other file- and print-sharing applications that were already shipping, including Banyan Systems, Inc.'s VINES, which did everything NetWare did, but a lot better.

It didn't matter. NetWare was the thing, and Ray Noorda went a little crazy.

When Microsoft tried to add networky functions to Windows, Noorda began to hate. He focused all his energies on quashing Microsoft like the pretentious upstart it was.

That didn't work too well.

Windows really was bad compared to NetWare, at first; but NetWare was bad compared to VINES, too.

Didn't matter. NetWare killed VINES; Windows killed NetWare.

The board pushed Noorda out; Novell wandered around for a while, employing Eric Schmidt for a while before he found a niche at Google.

Novell helped sue Microsoft for being an evil monopoly and break its power forever.

That didn't work, either.

Novell found work doing some things with Linux; it moved East.

It wandered some more.

In March a hedge fund tried to buy it. Novell said no.

VMware tried to buy it. Novell said no.

Today Novell announced it was allowing itself to be bought, by a trio of private-equity companies to provide the funding and perhaps the least sexy company in the computer industry as a front.

It's hard to know what benefit Attachmate -- which makes invisible systems software found only so deep in the data center even dedicated geeks fear to go there.

Maybe they could package the user-unfriendly Groupwise with its Legacy Modernization software. Why not? Couldn't make Groupwise any less successful.

Finance people liked the $2.2 billion deal. They wear suspenders; solid-color collars with striped shirts; French cuffs and giant, ugly Rolexes set with stones mined only in Ostentatia.

That tells you as much as you need to know about their judgment, assuming the crash of the housing market, fleecing of investors and instant recovery-with-bonuses at the beginning of a three-year-recession that affected everyone but the Wall Street firms that caused it didn't clue you in already.

The real key to the announcement is that a coalition led by Microsoft managed to push the deal over the edge by agreeing to acquire 882 patents from Novell for $450 million.

That's a lot of patents. It's not exactly clear what they cover, though.

One assumes they give Microsoft more clearance from the kind of infringement actions SCO was filing when it briefly switched its main product from Linux to lawsuits, which was partially blunted when a judge ruled Novell owned the patents behind some of the suits.

Or that Microsoft will have more leeway to sue other companies for infringing on intellectual property Microsoft may or may not have owned.

Microsoft has been kind of liti- liti- litigious lately, which worries some.

It sees Google and Android as a threat, obviously.

We can only hope Microsoft develops an unreasonable hatred for Google and applies all its energy to destroying the upstart.

It's happened before.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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