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In the 1990s Novell transitioned from being a standards-introducing company to being a standards-sustaining company. In 1990 the LAN vision was complete: A network operating system standard had been devised, it had been promoted successfully, and it had created a billion-dollar industry.
The organization that sustains a standard isn’t the same kind as the one that first parades it in front of the world. Audaciousness and single-minded vision are necessary qualities for bringing a new idea to life. Consensus and orderliness are necessary for keeping it useful.
In the 1990s Novell transitioned to becoming a “Statue of Liberty” company—a company that holds a standard high for all to see, a company that is marveled at and envied by its contemporaries, a company of importance, but a company that doesn’t move much.
In the 1990s Novell’s vision base widened. Instead of being centered around the Ray-Craig-Judith-SuperSet axis, it widened to include top management from many of the companies Novell and Ray had acquired. It transitioned from a monocentric vision to a polycentric vision, and from a vision originating within management to a vision supplied to management by professional visionaries. The new senior managers didn’t so much create visions as they picked and chose which visions to support from the many presented to them by consultants and middle managers.
In the 1990s, many of the top management moved to or were appointed out of the California area. At one point in 1991 the only company officers living in Utah were Ray and Jim Bills.
The result was a company that was highly profitable but very hard to figure out. There was a lot of talent at Novell, but the company produced no leader who could explain what that talent was supposed to be doing.
In yet another way, Novell turned inward.
A standards-sustaining company is dominated by the slogan “No surprises”. It doesn’t need surprises any more—they just cause lots of dislocations between the various constituencies that the standards are serving. Consider how Novell treated NetWare 386.
This was Novell’s last breakthrough product in the visionary era. It was the last to originate the way the original NetWare had: As a feeling on the part of the SuperSet people that new technology—in this case the 386 chip—could support the LAN vision in a better way.
NetWare 386 was a complete rewrite. In many ways it didn’t act the same as NetWare 286—which was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that it could work better. The curse was that supporting it would be different than supporting NetWare 286.
In 1988 and ’89, as the product developed, Novell had some hard choices to make in marketing it. The challenge was to reach Novell’s many different kinds of customers in ways that allowed Novell’s many marketing channels to do so profitably.
One possible solution followed the very traditional path of bringing in a high-performance solution at a high margin and appealing to a limited segment of the market. In this scenario NetWare 386 would be brought out as a high-end-only operating system. It would be positioned to compete with minicomputer operating systems and priced accordingly—higher than NetWare 286—so that it would appeal only to those customers developing very large networks using high-performance equipment.
This solution had the support of people in Novell’s West Coast divisions, for many of whom networking was something that minicomputer operating systems had claimed to do for years.
The alternative was to supplant NetWare 286 with NetWare 386 by introducing a range of NetWare 386 products designed to service low-performance as well as high-performance markets. The advantage of this solution was market penetration. A lot of NetWare 386 going out quickly would send a strong signal to the third-party applications software developers that 386 was going to become the mainstream LAN operating system and they should commit their design work to it. This would insure that NetWare 386’s most visible competitor, Microsoft’s LAN Manager, would have a hard time getting established.
One of NetWare 386’s distinctive features was that it was much easier to install than NetWare 286. Marketing it across the board, high and low, would give all NetWare users a product that was much easier to install and the convenience of a very smooth migration path. This PC-centric–oriented marketing was championed by Craig and those within Novell who had a lot of direct experience with the personal computer marketplace. But pursuing this strategy meant making a lot of change. It meant transitioning Novell’s service, training, and support arms from 286-based expertise to 386-based expertise. It meant Novell’s third-party applications developers would have to transition quickly too.
Craig’s demise in 1989 put an end to talk about a multi-tiered 386 introduction. The survivors felt there was no reason not to “skim the margin cream off the top” that this new technology offered, as they had always done in the minicomputer industry.
Novell introduced NetWare 386 in 1990 as a high-end operating system, and NetWare 286 has remained a viable product for many years. Rather than supplanting NetWare 286 with a low-price version of 386, Novell chose to modify 286 so that it acted more like 386.
And LAN Manager became a formidable competitor.
With Craig’s leaving, the meaning of “open systems approach” changed considerably at Novell. Early Novell viewed open systems as a form of “corporate jujitsu”. It was a way of thinking that let Novell develop policies and products so that the successes of other players became successes for Novell as well. Craig was particularly good at devising those kinds of tactics, and none of his successors had the frame of mind to match his skills in following that theme.
Novell in the ’90s remained firmly committed to “open systems”, but the meaning of the phrase changed. In the new Novell, the open systems approach referred to the details of making connectivity happen between various minicomputer communications systems—say, a connection between the TCP/IP communications protocol and a NetWare file server. It was transformed from a strategic business style to a strategic suite of products.
Many times in the middle ’80s Novell “bet the company” on an idea. The most spectacular of those ideas became the company “milestones”.
By the late ’80s Novell had a large installed base and was reaching the Fortune 1000 marketplace it had targeted. It listened to its customers and it found that they were happy with the current product. It was no longer necessary to bet the company on a new idea to make these people happy. They wanted NetWare to do what it was doing now only better. By the late ’80s Novell had reached and was beginning to find acceptance with the customers it wanted to cater to; it had an installed base; it was time for the revolution to stop.
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