SCO: When Bad Things Happen to Good Brands

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2004-06-15

SCO: When Bad Things Happen to Good Brands

People who have only recently become familiar with a company called SCO will be forgiven if they believe the three initials refer to the companys "Suit-Crazy Owners."

This is, after all, the company thats pinning its future on winning lawsuits against competitors over technology it really had no part in creating.

I wont try to explain the tortured history of how some portion of Unix intellectual property ended up in the hands of a Utah company whose management appears to have spent too much time out in the hot sun.

Thats a sad tale that starts with the breakup of AT&T, slides through the decline of Novell and then the decline of the "real" SCO, and eventually runs smack-dab into Linus Torvalds followers. The story, as all stories of companies in decline seem to, leads into the courthouse.

But that isnt the story I want to tell. Rather, I want to talk about the SCO that I knew. The company founded by Larry and Doug Michels that created the first Unix that would run atop Intel processors. That company, based in the college/beach town of Santa Cruz, Calif., epitomized an industry culture now gone.

I was thinking about this the other day while sitting with Doug Michels—his father, Larry, died a few years ago—on the upstairs deck of his home high above Santa Cruz, overlooking the redwoods and the Pacific Ocean. (It also overlooks the world-famous Mystery Spot, in case youre ever in the neighborhood).

SCO was founded in 1979 as The Santa Cruz Operation and thoroughly reflected the ethos of the community for which it was named. There was the corporate hot tub, available to all and the subject of at least one harassment suit.

There was my friend, the SCO marketing guy, who created the famous "flying toasters" Jefferson Airplane album cover—the winged toasters were later used by AfterDark for its screensaver—and promoted the company as he would a rock band.

New products were touted with movie-style posters, whose titles I forget but remember seeing tacked up in the cubicles of many reporters who followed the company. The companys yearly SCO Forum conference gathered customers and the Unix community for a week every summer, always including a concert done by someone reasonably famous. I remember Roger McGuinn of the Byrds performed one year.

I should stop and point out that SCO Forum and the SCO product line still exist, and the new company, formally called The SCO Group Inc., still sells Unix. Though the companys recent financial results show it doesnt sell it very well, and things arent getting better.

Click here to read about SCOs release of its new version of UnixWare.

The SCO Group was previously known as Caldera, a company former Novell boss Ray Noorda seems to have founded mostly as a way to take on Microsoft.

Next Page: SCO probably could have been run better.

Running SCO

SCO probably could have been a better-run company. My memory is that the stock analysts were fairly definite on that point, but it wouldnt have been nearly so much fun. Nor would it have reflected the whole open systems thing, the flag around which the Unix community rallied even if it was a Utopian vision—one world, one Unix—that never came close to being fulfilled.

This was the same SCO that had Microsoft as a minority owner. Ten percent as I remember, but Redmond got a seat on the SCO board as part of the deal. This is supposed to have resulted in many board meetings where the Microsoft member was excluded while everyone else talked about how to compete with Microsoft.

SCO was a good company with a good reputation. In some ways, SCO was Linux before Linux, popularizing Unix on low-cost Intel machines. Of course, it was the rise of Linux and SCOs inability to respond quickly enough that resulted in todays SCO—The Lawsuit Company. Perhaps they should use that as a corporate tagline? After all, thats how everybody thinks of the company these days.

Ive tried not to discuss the SCO lawsuits with Doug. The soul of the old SCO remains at Tarantella, a Unix utility company that wasnt part of the deal that sold the name to the Utah folks. Doug stayed with Tarantella after the sale, most recently in what I think is more of an advisory than an executive capacity.

I was at Dougs that day introducing him to a friend who needed some advice with a business hes starting, an introduction that could lead him to some of Dougs friends, many from the glory days of SCO.

Hard to believe that was less than a decade ago, but so many things have changed. There are no longer margins large enough to support terribly many "fun" companies. And hard times mean that many companies we used to admire—AT&T is my favorite example—have fallen into bad hands.

SCO is another of those companies. Its a good brand name that deserves better, or at least a decent burial and a wake. But instead, its memory is being trashed by people who dont and maybe cant appreciate the fondness many of us still have for the old Santa Cruz Operation.

Perhaps they should rename the rename the SCO Group after its new location—Lindon, Utah. But the initials LO are probably too close to "Lawsuits Only" for the new owners comfort.

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