While Microsoft Corp’s Bill Gates launched Office 97 in front of more than 1,000 reporters at New York’s Lincoln Center last January, a simultaneous event at the Grand Hyatt attracted somewhat less than 12. Stuck in traffic after an early morning flight from his company’s headquarters in Ottowa, Canada, Corel Corp’s chief executive Mike Cowpland eventually bustled in some 45 minutes late, and swiftly set about rubbishing the Lincoln Center event, and pouring scorn on the product that was drawing the crowds. From a man whose company’s total sales of new software in 1996 was only fractionally more than the amount Microsoft spent getting Office 97 out the door, that venom seemed inappropriate. But for those who know the emigre British physicist turned Canadian software entrepreneur, this was just Mike being Mike. Words like flamboyant, eternally upbeat and brash are the adjectives commonly used to describe his character – and in recent months the man’s persona has become even more bullish as a huge and daunting opportunity looms on the horizon. Though some close to him have counseled against it, Cowpland is unable to let slip the chance that has emerged for Corel to compete head-to-head with Microsoft.
By Gary Flood
A great deal of Corel’s culture comes straight from the top. In its acquisition of WordPerfect Corp a year ago (CI No 2,842), Corel took a near-dead product and made it a money-spinner once again. According to figures from market watchers PC Data and Softrends, at the retail, level Corel’s share of the Windows office suite market jumped from 24% in May to 49% in September, while the share of Microsoft’s Office fell from 68% to 46%. And in the months since it took custody of WordPerfect, the company has managed to both belt out a variety of 16- and 32-bit versions of WordPerfect and set plans in motion for specialized legal, medical, and construction industry versions to ship before mid- year. The ease at which it has adopted WordPerfect flows from Corel’s business culture. There is no NIH [not invented here] syndrome at Corel, notes Forrester Research software analyst Eric Brown. Corel will happily license any technology or product it feels will make its own more attractive: WordStar WP package, Alpha Software’s Windows database product, Xara’s 32-bit vector drawing package XaraStudio and Sanga’s Sanga Pages groupware, for example. These arrangements aside, the one area where Corel has quickly built industry credibility is in network computing, a profile that has centered around an effort to re-write the WordPerfect suite of wordprocessor, spreadsheet and personal organizer software using the highly-portable, Internet-centric development language Java. Corel Office for Java is due by the end of this quarter but is already available in pre-beta from the Corel and Netscape Web sites. At the same time, Corel was one of the early licensees of Oracle’s network computer (NC) design, and has clearly established itself as one of the very first application vendors with deliverable products for such thin clients’. Surprisingly, for an executive making his money in the PC industry, Cowpland was one of the first to jump on the NC bandwagon and Corel is even planning to release its own NC, enhanced with its videoconferencing add-on.
Right kind of alliances
At the same time, Corel has been busy forging many of the right kind of alliances in the Java community. Last month it announced a deal with Internet-driven software distribution star Marimba that will establish Marimba’s Castanet as a way for Office for Java users to receive bug fixes and upgrades down the wire. This deal came on the heels of a broadening of the link between Corel and Netscape, whereby the next WordPerfect suites will include a copy of Communicator, Netscape’s groupware-enabled successor to the Navigator browser. The combination is an attempt to blunt the inclusion in Office 97 of Outlook, a new Microsoft product for message and document-sharing. Such collaboration is meant to be mute witness to Corel’s oft-repeated mantra of openness. This is meant to imply that although there are many, many copies of Office 95 and soon Office 97 in the world, the arrival of Java and the Web may indeed shift the paradigm. No-one is going to wrestle the meat out of Office’s mouth on Wintel, that’s for sure. But the market has an opportunity to shift in the next two years with Java. If 10% of that corporate desktop market shifts to Java Virtual Machines, Corel gets a shot at establishing the new brand. But it’s just too soon to call – it may take two years until we know. What we see is that no-one takes Corel seriously as a corporate partner right now – though they have been effective in getting people to at least consider them, says Brown. For its part, Corel hints it may soon be making serious money out of Java. Virtually every second page of every magazine mentioned Java in 1996; but we haven’t seen much product yet, says Cowpland. Now we will. Corel has already made some money out of Java. A Toronto-based firm called ECG has paid Corel $8m to use the Java-based WordPerfect as part of a new applications package for financiers. Plus, Corel is already dropping hints that Sun may soon write it a big check for desktop software for the 10,000 users internally at Sun who don’t have Windows machines. Cowpland hype aside, 1997 will indeed be a banner year for Corel. It stands a better chance than Novell ever had or Lotus/IBM has today of challenging Microsoft in the office software arena. And any substantial growth of the network computer will play into its hands. At the same time its concerns are obvious. Corel’s graphics software business needs to return to health, so that any decline in WordPerfect revenues is offset by good growth elsewhere. Corel can’t be doing any more than they are, concludes Forrester’s Brown. But if it remains a Windows world it will be an extremely tough one for these guys. Brash, loud, boastful, garish: Corel may have few admirers on Wall Street, but it is still game for a scrap with the Redmond Red Army.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the March 1997 issue of Software Futures