to Cyreenik book index


Entertainment, Education, and Employees

Some may wonder what possible use a history of a company might serve. Entertainment, for one: Novell’s is a crackling good story. Education, for another: To understand Novell of the ’90s and early 21st century, and its flagship product, NetWare—now Open Enterprise Server (OES)[Footnote 1]—it is useful to understand where the company came from.

Then too, there are the employees, past and present. Novell has a semi-organized alumni association, called LAN—in this case, Life After Novell. When you worked at Novell you felt that you were part of something that mattered, and few people who passed through its doors were worse off for the experience. Working at Novell in the ’80s was perhaps the most frustrating, irritating, anxiety-producing career experience that Information Age pioneers ever suffered through, and yet it was an exhilarating and rewarding experience.

Novell has been a place where colossal mistakes were made, where colossal achievements were forged, where some dreams flourished and others died, where lasting friendships were sealed, and where the world was transformed. For the great numbers of Novellians currently in and out of the company, a history may provide a sense of closure and an opportunity to reflect on what has been for all a great adventure.

The Novell Story

In 1983 a failed business in a small Utah town is turned around. Six years later that business is ranked in the Fortune 1000 and the small Utah town becomes the center of a major computer technology.

A young college drop-out (Craig Burton), a middle-aged former beauty technician (Judith Clarke), and a near-retirement former “company man” (Ray Noorda) become millionaires virtually overnight and lead the creation of a major high tech industry.

A technological innovation so profound that it changes the way the world communicates, yet so esoteric that most people never notice it, is developed in about six months by four young free-lancers trying to put themselves through graduate school.

For sheer amazement, spectacle, drama, and comedy, no work of fiction can surpass the history of Novell, Inc., the Provo, Utah, company that rode the crest of a billion-dollar industry. Novell’s is a story of stupendous success—of wealth and power, of victory and conquest, and of the realization of hundreds of individuals’ dreams. It is also the story of stupendous failure—of fortunes lost, of the mighty overthrown, of scandal and defeat and treachery. It is a story of human beings who risked all, lost all, gained all, and built a business, day in and day out, that has literally changed the world. It is the legend of red-blooded all-American heroes civilizing a high tech frontier in the 1980s—a legend brought to life by real people.

The story of Novell fascinates on many different levels. It is a study of business enterprise, of people who saw a market opportunity and set out to exploit it. It is a lesson in business management—how managers faced first the challenge of business failure, then the greater challenge of dealing with a concept whose success grew a million-fold in ten years. It is a revealing illustration of how new technology is created, marketed, and sold.

Most interesting of all, Novell’s story is a tale of the human spirit—of people who, like people everywhere, cherished visions and hopes of what they might become and of what they might achieve, and who embarked together on a journey of self-fulfillment. It is a story of how these people helped and hurt each other in pursuit of their common and separate goals. Novell’s story is an adventure story, as thrilling in its way as any ever told or lived.

What was Novell? From its rebirth in 1983 to the turn of the 21st century, it was a manufacturer of networks that linked together personal computers (PCs).

Its vision as a company has been remarkably consistent through two decades of innovation, although the implementation of the vision has changed dramatically. Novell, like a handful of other companies, successfully rode the technological wave set in motion by the cataclysmic PC revolution—so successfully that it became a recognized industry standard-bearer for a major segment of the personal computing industry: The PC-based local area networks (LANs).

A Brief History of Events
Leading to PC-Based LANs

Computers began their existence as machines of mystery. They were the exclusive domain of computer professionals from the first UNIVAC sold in 1951 through the minicomputers sold in the 1970s. Data Processing (DP) or Management Information Systems (MIS) departments were the keepers of company computers—which were mainframe computers or, after 1963, a mix of mainframes and mini­computers.

Employees who had jobs for the company computer to do would typically submit the work with a request form to the MIS administrator, who would return the processed job upon completion. Knowledge of computer operation was highly specialized and beyond the ken of the ordinary person.

With time and declining costs computers became more widespread and familiar. Minicomputers brought a price breakthrough that pulled computers out of giant institutions, such as the Department of Defense, and made their use practical in medium-sized businesses and in large government and university departments. In the late ’70s minicomputers become common in corporations as a solution to department-level data processing needs.

Declining price and increasing familiarity allowed companies to automate more and more functions. The digital computers of World War II were used only for computing artillery trajectory tables. The first post-war commercial computers found use as accounting machines and engineering tools for giant tasks. By the 1970s medium-sized activities such as word-processing telephone books and process-controlling chemical operations were also appearing on a large scale. For example, a marketing department might have its own minicomputer that secretaries could access through terminals. Such minicomputer companies as DEC (pronounced deck, for Digital Equipment Corp.), Wang, Control Data, NCR (pronounced N-C-R, for National Cash Register), AT&T, and Vydec prospered in this period.

Although a company’s total computer power was a bit more decentralized than it had been in the past, the department-level minicomputers were still centrally administered by the MIS department.

A milestone in computer history was attained in 1969 when Marcian E. Hoff developed the first microprocessor chip, the Intel 4004, containing a miniaturized set of integrated circuits. The microprocessor was the basis of “fourth generation” computers that were developed in the 1970s. (First generation computers used vacuum tubes; second generation, transistors; third generation, integrated circuits; and fourth generation, microprocessors. Current computers are still fourth generation.)

The microprocessor also extended the computer’s usefulness by making possible an unexpectedly successful new kind of product: The microcomputer, later called the personal computer or PC.

In 1975, the year moviegoers flocked to see Jaws and Saturday Night Live premiered on TV, MITS (pronounced mitts, for Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) started selling the first commercial personal computer, the Altair. By 1977 Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack were also manufacturing PCs.

The first personal computers were regarded as toys: The playthings of hardware buffs, programming junkies, and the curious. All through the 1970s, conventional wisdom held that playthings were all they would ever be. The real home computer was going to be a time-sharing terminal in the home connected to a centrally located mini-computer, perhaps using the TV as its screen, perhaps with the minicomputer co‑located with telephone switching equipment. As a result, prototype personal computers stayed on the shelf at many, many companies in the business of building minicomputers, terminals, and other electronics.

A classic example comes from Sperry Univac in Salt Lake City: One day the engineers needed to test a supplier’s ability to provide quality printed circuit boards. They gave the supplier a mask for a personal computer mother board that the engineers had designed in their spare time. The boards came back, were tested—and then became the foundation for their computer club’s hobby computer kit.

The toy perception began to disappear only after VisiCalc hit the market in 1979. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet software for personal computers. It far surpassed in concept and ease of use anything com­parable on minis or mainframes, demonstrating decisively how PCs would be different from those and how important user friendliness was to become in general-purpose computer applications. As user-friendly accounting, word processing, and other software application programs became available for PCs, people began to look at them as low-cost computers for the office.

In the early days of personal computers, the potential of the technology had been enthusiastically pronounced on, but only a few visionaries acted to realize that potential. Eventually, said the prophets, every home would have its own PC. Families would use the new appliance for everything from balancing checkbooks to shopping to helping with homework. Databases around the world could be accessed from every home. People could even vote by punching in a few commands on the family keyboard.

Twenty years later in 1995, the promise of a PC in every home was close to being realized, but the hottest area of PC proliferation in the late ’70s and the ’80s—the place where PCs first actually revolutionized modern life—was the office. But back in 1975 almost no one had predicted that personal computers would take over the office, largely because minicomputers and mainframes were already well established there.

Personal computers put computing power on the desks of millions of individual employees with easy, simple access to word processing, spreadsheets, graphics, and sophisticated analytical programs. No MIS department intermediary was required to process work or to control files. “One man, one computer” (as the microcomputer slogan went) was becoming a reality in the offices of the developed world.

It wasn’t talked about as much, but those were also the days of “one computer, one programmer”. Most users mastered a programming language such as BASIC or Pascal so they could get more out of these machines with such potential. Doing so was feasible because “one man, one computer” eliminated the programming overhead associated with multi-tasking and security.

By 1980 the revolution was beginning but another step was needed. Computers users had been given privacy, simplicity, and user friendliness by the new personal computer technology, but they also needed more access. Users had access to the wide range of application programs, but they needed to share files and have access to databases held on other computers if they were going to take full advantage of this new technology, and this required networking of some sort.

Why Call This a Revolution?

A revolution is a time of rapid, unpredictable change. The development and acceptance of the personal computer has produced changes in our way of life more radical than even those contemplated by the masses cheering “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” in the 1790s.

There are fortunes to be made in every revolution—and fortunes to be lost. Change means opportunity to those perceptive, bold, and lucky enough to take the right actions at the right moments.

The first Novell was launched by people with a vision of how they could prosper from the computer revolution underway. This company, Novell Data Systems, Inc., failed: It did not catch the wave of technology but instead was sucked under and squashed by it. The second Novell did rather better and is still riding the crest of the wave.

The Burning Questions

Why did one Novell die while another rose phoenix-like from its ashes? Why do some visions succeed while others fail? What combination of people is necessary to create a winning technology—and from there a winning company? Can lessons be derived from Novell’s experience so that the phenomenon of Novell can be repeated in other industries, or be predicted more accurately?

The answers to such questions, if answers exist, are elusive. Before we can speculate about why Novell is a success we have to determine what happened. This is more difficult than one might think, even though the Novell story spans scarcely three decades. Each player saw a different piece of the story from a unique perspective and the rush of events was so dizzying for the central characters that memories have already blurred or faded. Many of those who were in a position to see the big picture are still chasing the technology muse and lack the time and the inclination to discuss the past. A few are discouraged and trying to put the past behind them.

The Enigma

At the core of the Novell story was Ray Noorda, the man who discovered a kernel of greatness in a moribund operation and from it grew a company and an industry. Although he spoke frankly and usually sincerely, although he was a public figure whose contributions to the computer industry were well known, Ray was an enigma even to those who worked closely with him. There was an indefinable, unfathomable quality to the man—a Lincolnesque aspect to his personality. A folksy manner belied a superior, probing intelligence. One did not expect to find in this paragon of homespun virtue a master strategist and a relentless, sometimes reckless entrepreneur. Like Lincoln, Ray was often underestimated by those who dealt with him.

As with Lincoln, opinions of Ray vary widely. To some he was “wily” or “slippery”; some of his key managers described him as “a moody little son of a bitch”. Others revered him as a father or benefactor—“a great man with a great heart.” A few of his most ungenerous critics considered him merely lucky. But most people in the computer industry agree that Ray was a good man of business. Even his harshest detractors acknowledge that he worked exceptionally hard and that he was an entrepreneur in the purest sense of the word.

Footnote 1: At this writing, the latest version of NetWare is v6.5 Support Pack 8, which is identical to OES 2 SP1, NetWare Kernel.

to Cyreenik book index