Novell vs. Microsoft: Here We Go Again

Opinion: Does Novell have a prayer of proving that Microsoft unfairly cut WordPerfect out of the market?

Let me start this column by stating my biases: I believe the federal courts were right in ruling that Microsoft abused its monopoly power in PC operating systems. That said, I am very skeptical that Novell has any chance of proving that Microsoft used similar tactics to carve out a monopolists share of the desktop-office-suite market.

And Im not the only one who thinks Novell faces some pretty insurmountable hurdles in its quest to show that Microsoft cut off the air supply of WordPerfect and Quattro Pro (products that Novell sold to Corel eight years ago, mind you) via unfair tactics, such as pressuring PC makers against preloading the Novell alternatives to Microsoft Office.

"Novells market share eroded more from poor marketing than having an inferior product," said James Powell, editor of The Office Letter, a weekly newsletter all about Microsoft Office. And Microsofts "ability to preload the [Office] software on systems is also a red herring—that really only helps in the consumer market, but the profits from such deals are pretty thin."

Sure, Microsoft leveraged its position as the supplier of both the desktop operating system and the desktop suite, Powell acknowledged.

But the new Novell antitrust suit is "one of those too little, too late lawsuits, with little to gain for Novell—except money, of course," Powell said. And the office-suite market "is really down to one player, with a few products—WordPerfect, OpenOffice, and others—on the fringes," he added.

Former Softie Joel Spolsky (of "Joel on Software") fame—who is more of a Microsoft critic than cheerleader—also attributed Microsofts success in the desktop suite market to Novells marketing and development problems at least as much as to Microsofts strong-arm tactics.

"WordPerfect was written in the low level Assembler programming language, which meant it took 10 times as much work to implement a simple feature than it took in Microsoft Word, which was written in the then-state-of-the-art C programming language," recalled Spolsky, a former member of the Excel team at Microsoft.

"It didnt help that the culture at WordPerfect was very relaxed and genial: Utah family men who were out the door every day at 5 oclock sharp. They had no hope of keeping up with the hoards of aggressive twenty-somethings at Microsoft burning the midnight oil and using the latest tools.

"Microsoft Word was better and was available sooner, so its not fair to attribute all of WordPerfects problems to Microsofts anti-competitive practices."

To me, the latest Novell suit sounds all too similar to the Caldera versus Microsoft antitrust suit over DR-DOS. In that case—which ended in Microsoft paying Caldera hundreds of millions of dollars, according to sources, back in 2000—Caldera claimed Microsoft unfairly used its leverage with OEMs to kill off the DR-DOS alternative to MS-DOS and Windows.

I always thought Caldera had a strong case. But even if Caldera had won, what would have changed? As is true with WordPerfect, the market has moved on.

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