Technology Spotlight: Linux at Corel Corp.

With the recent finding of fact issued by Judge Jackson in the landmark Microsoft antitrust trial, Linux has been thrust into the spotlight.

Amid all the attention, Microsoft rival Corel Corp. (Nasdaq: CORL) is expanding an existing Linux strategy with the release of its own distribution. By staging the release at COMDEX, Corel is aiming to bring Linux to the elusive desktop market and has enlisted the Debian Project to help them accomplish this feat.

In this exclusive interview with the E-Commerce Times, Derik Blair, Brand Manager for Linux at Corel Corp., discusses Corel’s product and the future of Linux.

Q Can you tell our readers about Corel’s involvement with Linux and the open-source movement?A Corel has been involved for several years with UNIX. WordPerfect as a company had their products out since version 5.0 or 5.1 of WordPerfect. Ever since Corel took over WordPerfect, we’ve had our products on UNIX. So, we’re very familiar with that OS.

We’ve had a version of WordPerfect for Linux since version 7, which has been somewhere around two years now, and we now have WordPerfect 8 for Linux which has been available since December of 1998. It’s still a very young marketplace overall, but we’ve been involved almost since the beginning.

With regard to our involvement in the open-source community, we’ve been fairly substantial contributors, donating to a couple of projects. One being the Wine project, and also we’re a strong supporter of the Debian/KDE (K Desktop Environment) project.

Q Could you talk a little bit about your Linux distribution?A We are releasing a version of the Debian/KDE implementation. We’ve strategically partnered with both Debian and KDE, and are working very closely with them on a lot of the issues such as installation and Windows-to-Linux connectivity. We’re also making some substantial improvements on the KDE.

Q Why did you choose Debian?A Debian is the most open-source focused, it has the most developers and it’s a rock solid distribution. We felt that all three of these characteristics were essential to creating a Linux distribution for the desktop.

Q Your distribution met with a bit of controversy during the beta testing phase. What are your comments about that?A The controversy during the beta testing phase was a learning experience for both Corel and open-source advocates. We learned that we needed to be more specific in our beta testing agreement to make sure that it was clear the agreement applied only to Corel-specific components. At the same time, many people in the open-source community stood behind Corel and understood that we’re learning as we go. We resolved the situation very quickly and I think we gained more respect from the open-source community as a result.

Q What are the most significant factors driving the current Linux market? A Right now, Linux offers a sort of shift in paradigm in how we’ve looked at — and a lot of vendors have looked at — operating systems. We have all been working with a very static operating system, one that has been presented to us and has its capability, power and limitations. But it has offered us little tools in the ability to actually be able to make some fundamental changes.

Linux offers us the ability to open the hood of the operating system, and really be able to make the appropriate enhancements that our end users are looking for. It provides an opportunity to optimize their use of the actual hardware and to customize and integrate it very well with the applications.

So, Linux seems to be very much a movement created by our end users looking to have a lot more server-like power, and definitely have a community that can offer that kind of speed of development turnaround.

Q What critical challenges exist for Linux and the firms that are involved in the area of commercial Linux? A Commercial Linux, again, definitely offers a shift in paradigm where companies have historically looked at the operating system and its source code as being its primary jewel. What we’re looking at is the ability to give a lot of that source code back to the community, really work with them closely at integrating products and creating products that really come from their need and not just from our need.

Q Why do you think e-commerce professionals should consider Linux?A Linux was born on the Web and Apache is a true testament to this. With the latest news that Apache will support XML, Linux is a true winner for workhorse e-commerce sites.

Q How do you see the competition between Microsoft and Linux evolving? A I think I offer probably nothing more than crystal-balling on my end. But, in my opinion, and from having talked to the community, what we’re seeing is Microsoft working with two different aspects. They’re looking at it from an OS level, and as a potential threat to Windows NT. And we’re also looking at it as a potential complement to some of their office products. So, it’s bad on one end, but it’ll be good on the other.

Obviously, Microsoft is a significant player that has always created some great applications and if they were to really get involved with Linux that would really be a shot of validity to Linux, and it would probably propel it way beyond what Microsoft would like it to be. So, I’m sure they’re going to be very careful, paying a lot of attention to what’s going on and taking a look at who are the emerging players.

Microsoft has always offered a lot of great applications to our users, and if they were to provide those applications for a Linux environment, I’m sure our users would be thrilled to have them. There is a definite mentality that exists within Linux that the operating systems is a part of it, but the solution exists around it. The existing part of the Linux environment is probably something that would take some tweaking on Microsoft’s part, but I’m sure we’re going to see some move on Linux by Microsoft in the short to medium term.

Q What’s the intention behind the Corel Linux Advisory Council effort? A Having been involved for quite a bit of time, one of the big advantages that we’ve seen with the open-source community is its ability to get together on an equal playing field and iron out the issues, and examine the opportunities and the threats that face the Linux community. As developers, they’ve always been really good at that. As vendors coming into Linux, we see how much power that provided them and would really like to provide that on a vendor level.

Being Corel, we deal with a lot of our Windows vendors that are looking at Linux as a potential new marketplace. We’re also dealing with a lot of Linux vendors, and we’re always identifying those opportunities. The Linux Advisory Council was really a forum to be able to address those issues as they’re relevant to Corel and as they’re relevant to other people, and identify what the course of action is and how we work together to make sure that duplication isn’t a huge part of how we develop things.

The advisory council was developed in a panel style where Corel was just a member, and so the issues that arose were ones that were brought up by the council. It was definitely a step in the right direction at bringing the commercial vendors together with the open-source community. We had prominent open-source community members there, and what we did was really create a forum to be able to facilitate discussion. ‘OK, as an open-source vendor, as an open-source player, how can we help you to move Linux forward?’ That’s what we were looking for, as opposed to, ‘OK, here’s where we’re going, and you’re going to follow us.’ It’s really about everyone having a seat and being able to identify those opportunities.

Q What sort of impact do you think Corel will have on Linux?A We definitely hope that we can bring some of our Windows expertise to Linux. One of our key strengths at Corel is our Windows client base. We have expertise in the GUI (graphical user interface), and so forth. We understand what Windows users are looking for, and what we’re seeing is that a lot of those Windows users are looking at Linux now. What we want to do with Linux is be able to make sense of it to our users, and to make sure that we can leverage the existing user base that’s out there now. We want to make sure they understand the power of it. We also want to make sure that we can, to some extent, identify the opportunities that Linux represents, and to make sure we create an easy conduit from Windows to Linux.

Q Linus Torvalds and Red Hat CEO Bob Young have attained a sort of celebrity status. What do you think about how they — and Linux generally — have been portrayed by the media? A I think that Linux has overall has been favorably received and has been positioned well in the public eye. I think that Linus and Bob Young are definitely very good spokespeople for Linux. They definitely have highlighted the issues, and they have come out there with an attitude to create a better operating system. It wasn’t a head-on war with Microsoft. They’ve really positioned themselves very well. I think that other open-source projects have probably failed in those areas because of their positioning, because of what they were trying to accomplish.

Any time that we can talk about Linux, and talk about the potential advantages, I think is a good step forward. I think that so far it has been very well received, and I think a big part of that is due to people like Linus and Bob Young.

Q How has the Red Hat IPO changed Linux?A The Red Hat IPO was great for Linux. It brought a new level of focus from the financial community and created validity for Linux on Wall Street. Red Hat’s success benefits everyone in the Linux community.

Q Where do you see commercial Linux and Corel’s Linux efforts one year from now?A We’re going to try to make the transition as easy as possible for our clients. We’re going to try to identify when that transition makes sense for them and when it does not. We’re really committed towards out clients and understanding what they’re looking for and what they want. When they want to go to Linux and the reason they go to Linux we’ll support, and we’ll make sure that we can provide them with the tools that they’re used to in the Windows environment available on Linux in a way that it makes sense in the Linux environment.

After the desktop OS, the next product that we will be releasing is our office suite, which most people are familiar with. We are hoping that that office suite will go into beta by the end of this year, and we’ll start shipping at the beginning of next year. The office suite will definitely be based on a lot of the feedback that we’ve gotten from our current version of the WordPerfect 8 product for Linux.

The way that we distributed our WordPerfect 8 for Linux was a free download off the Web, and they key was really about getting the client feedback. We wanted to find out why they were trying to use WordPerfect on Linux, what they’re looking for and what drove them there.

We had approximately about 100,000 people that came back and registered, which is the biggest survey ever done in Linux, and it’s given us a tremendous amount of feedback as to what our clients are looking for. We’re using that pocket of knowledge to be able to develop an application suite, or an office suite, that really makes sense for our Linux users, and not just a direct reflection of what the Windows applications look like.

Over the next year, we’ll definitely have more applications, more support and training. All of these will evolve as Linux gains new users and more developers and hardware manufacturers support Linux.

The Corel Linux Community can be found online at linux.corel.com.

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