From Godzilla to Gecko: The Long,
Slow Decline of Novell
One of the least understood aspects of Microsoft’s success over the years is its prowess in working with and communicating with the development community. Microsoft has always been good at making it easy and comparatively cheap to build Windows applications. It provides good quality utilities, compilers, and frameworks on a timely basis. In line with its earlier efforts, it supported the rollout of Windows NT with several initiatives designed to encourage the development of new client/server applications for NT.
By contrast, developing products for NetWare in the critical 1993 time frame was difficult. Novell’s tools were expensive and primitive. Developing an application for NetWare required a programmer to almost reprogram the OS itself. And despite numerous promises, Novell’s widely heralded AppWare development framework never seemed to be available. Novell’s attitude toward many NetWare developers was a mixture of equal parts distrust and disdain. The corporate zeitgeist at Novell was “If anyone is going to develop applications for our product, it should be us. We understand it and cherish it. If we allow just any hoi polloi to develop for our baby, they might change anddeform it horribly.” Sort of what happened to Godzilla when progressive aliens attempted to clone him as Mechagodzilla.
Novell helped drive this point home to developers with the shutdown of its Austin, Texas–based third-party development support center in 1994. This group consisted of over 300 employees and was responsible for evangelizing software publishers to build NetWare-specific applications (called NetWare Loadable Modules or NLMs). It has become a standard mantra to proclaim that NetWare was just a file and printserver, but despite the obstacles the company threw in the way of programmers, a large and growing market of applications native to NetWare flourished through the mid-1990s.
Novell was particularly well represented in the accounting and database markets, software that fits naturally into a network environment.Companies supporting NetWare included Great Plains, Macola, Peachtree, Oracle, Sybase, and Borland, to name a few. The Austin center supported Novell’s ISVs with technical assistance and sold them development tools and utilities. Its marketing efforts encompassed helping companies reach customers via direct marketing campaigns, co-op advertising, and trade show appearances in partnership with Novell.
With the Austin center gone, most of Novell’s third-party outreach programs went into limbo. Preoccupied with its purchase of WordPerfect, Novell didn’t bother to fully reconstitute its Austin center in Utah for years. The development community, cast adrift, was thus primed to be receptive to Microsoft when it came calling with promises of NT development and marketing support.
Novell’s contempt toward its development community also had serious long-term consequences as the Internet tide swept through high tech. Few new Internet applications were released for NetWare as the company spiraled toward irrelevancy. Novell’s combination of high development costs, poor support, and shrinking customer base held little appeal to programmers and companies looking to enter new markets. Instead, Microsoft, with its history of providing inexpensive development tools and access to a huge market, and open source, with its even cheaper development costs and rapidly growing community of “anybody but Microsoft” acolytes, garnered the lion’s share of new product investment. By end of the 1990s, Novell had succeeded in converting the impression that NetWare was just a file and print server into a fact....