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Following the Technology:
In Pursuit of the PC-Compatible Marketplace

I came here to drain a swamp but I spend all my time wrestling alligators.


In 1982, Engineering was tied up wrestling the enormous alligators of quality problems, personal computer problems, and getting the LAN delivered. The continual battering had left them quite conservative and focused. When the IBM PC was introduced few engineers showed any interest. They had no time to see that the IBM PC was the key to draining their swamp.

SuperSet, on the other hand, was quite interested. They were independents and their contribution was software, to which they still felt some proprietary attachments. They could see Novell’s problems as clearly as anyone, and if Novell sank beneath the waves they wanted to have another market for their work.

All through 1982 they actively explored alternatives. Some involved marketing, such as selling a game they designed to performance-test the network (the origin of Snipes) and discreetly inquiring who else might be interested in network operating system technology.

They also explored technology alternatives, including the IBM PC. As mentioned in Chapter Two (p. 65), Drew got one of the first PCs in Utah Valley. He could see that it would be easy to network as a workstation. It had an open bus structure and a well-documented BIOS that would make designing a network board easy. So in 1982 and 1983 Drew campaigned, with Craig’s help, to include the PC as one of the kinds of workstations Novell would support.

The PC was fine as a workstation but as a file server it was marginal because it had no standard hard disk. Then in 1983 the IBM PCXT was introduced, a PC with a standard hard disk installed, and that obstacle was removed. The PC-compatible file server was now technologically practical and supporting PC-compatibles as file servers became a marketing question.

However, the PCXT was underpowered compared to Novell’s proprietary 68B file server and the 8088 CPU couldn’t process as fast as the 68000. The PCXT supported smaller-capacity disks—5MB and 10MB compared to the 40MB available on the 68B. Would such a file server sell? Finally, even if it would sell would it cut into the much more profitable business of selling 68B file servers? Those cost a few thousand dollars when an operating system for a PC-compatible sold for a few hundred.

Craig and Drew argued that a PC-compatible file server would not only sell, it would sell much better than the 68Bs because the PCXT was an open system. There would be dozens of companies and thousands of people trying to sell PC-compatible file servers with dozens of kinds of networking boards installed. If Novell could service that market with a “glue product” it would be a much larger market than that of selling just 68B file servers with Novell boards for the PCs.

But it was a tough choice. It went against the grain of what Engineering perceived their mission to be: Circuit-designing engineers aren’t going to have much to do in a company devoted to producing floppy disks and manuals. They are going to perceive that they can add a lot more value to the company by redesigning the file server or designing a new network interface card (NIC).

In the end, the circuit designers adapted to the glue product concept and remained useful by designing drivers for the NICs and by dealing with the many kinds of hard disk drives and disk drive controllers that came to be attached to the PC-compatibles.

Novell’s open systems approach to marketing NetWare eventually became famous. But the path to it was not obvious in 1983. It took a lot of inspired salesmanship both within and outside Novell.

From the Outside

When viewed from the outside, 1983 was a year of no change for Novell. Novell hadn’t grown in people, the people hadn’t changed much, the LAN product hadn’t changed much, the sales were only $3.5 million. There was absolutely no sign that a billion-dollar company was in the making.

The only surprising news was that Novell was still alive at all and that the chaos of the Time of Six Presidents had ended abruptly with Ray’s arrival.

But in 1983 the foundation was built: The key elements of NetWare were resolved technically and now the battle would move to marketing this wonderful technology. The task ahead would be to prove that NetWare wasn’t just another over-engineered product, with lots of nice features that no one needed.

In 1983 the team was forged and its goal was defined: 1984 would be, in the eyes of Novell’s founders, the Year of the LAN.

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