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Who'll Buy Novell First, Sun or IBM?

"If IBM acquires them, the community outrage and customer disaffection is going to be epic," says Sun's president and COO.

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    Even before LinuxWorld Conference and Expo opens here today in San Francisco, two of the main players, Sun Microsystems and Novell, have already hit the headlines. Might Sun possibly be contemplating using its substantial cash reserves to buy Novell, is the question of the day after a remark to the press - reported first in the Wall Street Journal - by Sun's president and COO Jonathan Schwartz.

    "With our balance sheet," Schwartz said in an interview on Sunday, "we're considering all our options."

    "What would owning the operating system on which IBM is dependent be worth?" he continued, going on to add a comment that has already unleashed considerable resentment and disbelief here among the Linux faithful in San Francisco: "History would suggest we look to Microsoft for comparisons," Schwartz remarked. 

    What the open source community is asking is whether Sun is perhaps just playing footsie with such an acquisition idea in order to steal the thunder from Novell's highly successful SUSE Linux distro. Certainly Sun's own Linux-based Java Desktop System, reviewed recently at LinuxWorld.com, will get a huge publicity boost.

    But what is the true story? Is Sun genuinely considering such an acquisition?

    The answer to that, undeniably, is yes. As befits a major public company with a long history in the technology industry - cash and marketable securities of $7.61 billion, according to the latest figures - Sun is in good financial health, balance sheet wise. It has deep pockets right now. As such it has every right to be looking at acquisitions, and Novell's market cap of $2.64 billion based on July 30 figures puts it within range.

    But the likely real story is that Sun is horrified at the thought that someone else might buy Novell. Especially if that someone else turned out to be IBM.

    "IBM is in a real pickle," Schwartz wrote yesterday in his increasingly widely read blog. "Red Hat's dominance leaves IBM almost entirely dependent upon SUSE/Novell. Whoever owns Novell controls the OS on which IBM's future depends. Now that's an interesting thought, isn't it?"

    The Schwartz blog continued:

    "But if IBM preemptively acquires Novell/SUSE, the world changes: Linux enters the product portfolio of a patent litigator not known for being a social-movement company. But where else will IBM go? With its current market cap, Red Hat seems unacquirable - but absent action, IBM's core customers will be eroded by Red Hat's leverage. And Sun's ability to leverage our open Solaris platform (on industry standard AMD, Intel or SPARC), or Java Enterprise System, even on IBM's hardware, gives us a significant - and sustainable - competitive advantage. With the demise of AIX, IBM is once again vulnerable." 

    "I'd keep a close eye on the Novell/SUSE conversation," Schwartz concludes. "If IBM acquires them, the community outrage and customer disaffection is going to be epic... but where else does IBM go?"  

    Meantime here at LinuxWorld, Sun will today announce availability of its Sun Studio 9 IDE, with C/C++ tools for building applications on Sparc, Xeon, and Opteron, and for Java Desktop System (JDS) 2003, SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 8, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, and will demonstrate its "SunRay" server software running natively on Linux.

    It remains to be seen what visitors to LinuxWorld will make of the fact that the Novell and the Sun exhibit booths are just a stone's throw from one another in the Moscone Center here in San Francisco.

  • More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

    Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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    Most Recent Comments
    oldNovell 08/06/04 06:28:02 PM EDT

    If Norman is talking about the Netware OS itself dying of old age, yep that I can see. However, Only a complete idiot company would let all the cross platform drop dead as well, especially if the pay big bucks for it.

    AS much as I like netware, all that linux needs to to have to make it a fine file server would be the permanent incorporation of Posix ACLS and extended attributes as part of the system kernel. Incorporate the concept of a linux filesystem object into eDirectory, back it up with modifications to the administrative tools that allow the settings of ACL's centrally (like we have been doing in novell-land for the past 10 years) - do all this AND open source the results and M$ has a BIG problem - especially of the resulting tool set does a better job of taming AD that MS itself.

    Anoynmous 08/05/04 11:54:19 AM EDT

    Um Steve - you seem to have your facts wrong. Sun did not create Open Office\Star Office.

    Sun acquired Star Office from its creator, the German company "StarDivision". Sun cleaned it up (removed the nasty, pervasive desktop replacement it had), and changed it to a pay-for product. I can't comment on the rise of OOo

    It's only in the last two years that Star Office has become "free" to non-profit orgs.

    Anoynmous 08/05/04 11:47:10 AM EDT

    Um Steve - you seem to have your facts wrong. Sun did not create Open Office\Star Office.

    Sun acquired Star Office from its creator, the German company "StarDivision". Sun cleaned it up (removed the nasty, pervasive desktop replacement it had), and changed it to a pay-for product. I can't comment on the rise of OOo

    It's only in the last two years that Star Office has become "free" to non-profit orgs.

    Normann Aa. Nielsen 08/05/04 02:59:45 AM EDT

    As I don't do drugs at all (silly head :-) I would still like to raise my concern - actually to make oldNovell fans see the worst scenario. The thing is, Novell marketshare has been falling from the time Micro$oft introduced Windows NT and claimed it to be a superior network. Now, it isn't, but SOHO customers thought good about the idea that the could use the server as a workstation too - a non-dedicated server.

    In the same time, OS/2 server came and went away, but Linux began to raise momentum, espc. in the SOHO area (no big deal, it is here we really see the nerds flourish). Now, Linux (in all it's distros) is all around us, IBM and Sun - already experienced in network on Unix-like systems - don't mind fiddling with LinuxNet. There is already open source netcode that deals very good with metadirectories (although Novell IS the top, no doubt!).

    What it all comes down to is the industry feeling that Novell is decaying. You know, the sinking feeling that the only thing preventing ud from just giving Bill Gates all our money now and end it all is pride...

    Thus I expect the buying company to let the product die silently of old age - oh, yeah, before that they will undoubtly spend a few bucks to a new version with their own name on it (an epitaph?), but apart from that...

    Hope future proves me wrong - history has proven me right.

    oldNovell 08/04/04 05:18:11 PM EDT

    You people are on drugs. Whomever buys novell gets an industrual strength cross platform directory service, The best metadirectory service bar none(even connects with IBM OS!!!), with first rate administration tools to boot, the best workstation management product on the market, the second best groupware/email product on the market, etc. etc. SUSE and netware are almost a side issue.

    IF sun buys Novell and assimilates it correctly (e.g. they can finally phase out the obsolescent crap of a directory that they acquired from Netscape) they may have a chance to survive.

    IF IBM buys Novell and assimilates it correctly, Sun MAY be toast.

    This is VERY interesting.....

    Ron Krogel 08/04/04 10:53:07 AM EDT

    I asked this same question of a Novell representative at LinuxWorld 2 years ago. He smiled but couldn't comment on anything. I lean much more towards IBM buying them (Novell). Same held true for IBM reps.

    Funny how Linux is always mentioned and not NDS. Novell has technology that would work well for server consolidation running under Linux VM on the mainframe. If IBM were to purchase I highly doubt it would be for Linux alone.

    A highly secure scalable directory running on a stable (linux) platform with mainframe reliability. Plus add in a lot of portal technology both Novell and IBM have worked on. I could see competition to Microsoft products.

    Brad O'Hearne 08/04/04 10:48:10 AM EDT

    Here's what would be ultimately comical. How about Microsoft buying Sun? Microsoft would own both Solaris *and* Java. If I were running MS -- I'd do it. They've already proven being found guilty of monopolistic practices has minimal ramifications...


    Normann Aa. Nielsen 08/04/04 03:20:19 AM EDT

    What concerns me the most is the future of Novell, as a network product. Would IBM offer full commitment to the product or would they rather let it go the OS/2 way (for you that are too young to remember: IBM actually had an upper hand with OS/2, but decided to let the product be in the shelf instead of continue the push).

    Neither Sun nor IBM needs to care about the network product. The Linux / AIX / Sun products works smoothly as network systems (better than Windows). But there is a market share that loves the good old stable system. Should they be abandoned?

    As for the Linux part, it seems to be the correct move though. The AIX is a dead end, as could be predicted long ago, when there is so much move on the open source development. Whether IBM should buy Sun is an interresting thought, and the time is actually right: Sun is very much alive and kicking, so it is not a weak company to erradicate. And IBM knows how to do Java (and Linux). So for the benefit of the industry such a deal whould be quite refreshing.

    Mark 08/03/04 11:30:25 PM EDT

    SuSE, Red Hat, whatever ... these are distros. What is the competitive advantage of owning one? A distro is simply the delivery channel for the underlying OS - Linux. If customers decide they don't like one, they can easily switch to another. Comparing the strategic value of SuSE with DOS/Windows is like comparing EggHead Software (remember how software was distributed in the 80s ?)with Microsoft. Schwartz is confusing the distribution channel with the product.

    Poor Sun. I wish IBM would buy Sun and save Java from these lunatics ...

    chamberlain 08/03/04 09:11:58 PM EDT

    Good to see schwartz continuing in the best mcnealy tradition...

    Codeboy 08/03/04 08:22:04 PM EDT

    Schwartz is wrong. It is not IBM that is in a pickle, it is Sun. IBM is getting bigger every year, it is making lots of money off of Linux, and it is perfectly happy to support both RedHat and SuSE. On the other hand, Linux on x86 is destroying Sun's business model of making all its money from Sparc hardware that runs Solaris.

    I think this is all an attempt by Schwartz to distract everyone from the fact that Sun has yet to come up with a new business model that could actually work.

    Mark 08/03/04 06:48:11 PM EDT

    Microsoft has already figured out it can't buy Linux. Buy all the Linux companies it wants, and others will come out. If Sun did buy Linux, there would be more outrage than if IBM did it. Further, IBM could finance a company to create a competitor to Red Hat, or could come out with its own Linux distro. I know I wouldn't care, and I'm a SUSE user. In fact, if Sun bought Novell, I would pray for IBM to create a distro of its own.

    Daniel Wallace 08/03/04 06:22:30 PM EDT

    SuSE market cap $2.6 billion
    Sun market cap $12.6 billion
    IBM market cap $143 billion and owner of the
    largest software patent portfolio on the planet.

    If I were an IBM executive I would be terrified
    of the situation also ... I would fear dying from
    laughing too hard.

    Rob Igbemer 08/03/04 05:14:42 PM EDT

    What would stop IBM from simply dropping SuSE support, thereby killing Novell and instead making some other distro (there are many) its second choice? Seems to me Sun might as well take that 2+ billion dollars out in cash, put it into one big pile and burn it.

    muzukulu 08/03/04 02:23:07 PM EDT

    sun may be like good to the community and all, but a sun - novell marriage isn't good at all. all sun wants is to undermine IBM's linux strategy which in turn is very bad for the linux community. this is attempted sabotage. talk about sun and microsoft making up.

    jesse 08/03/04 02:12:15 PM EDT

    "..cost IBM significant money and (more importantly) time."

    Won't cost them a dime. After all, they have a sizable AIX capability, and could have the same size Linux. They should anyway, since they are the ones that ported Linux to the mainframe.

    Steve 08/03/04 10:33:50 AM EDT

    The only reason the Linux desktop even has an office suite that is business ready is because of Sun. Open Office is a key to linux being on the desktop and yet people always seem to forget who gave it to us. Not to mention they also came out with that wonderful little language known as java and fully support it on Linux. Java is going to be a key in the desktop migration, well java and .net. But being able to develop on one platform and know it will run on another without modification is an amazing thing when developing. Sun has been very nice to the OSS community and often donates large sums of money to various projects. Not to mention the whole Project Looking Glass thing. When Looking Glass is released, it will show some real competition with Longhorn and Mac on the desktop.

    AnOOn 08/03/04 10:32:20 AM EDT

    No, they won't own Linux but IBM has made a conscious desision not to have a distro of their own. They depend on commercial distros to provide the platform that runs their hardware and software.

    IBM is deeply in bed with both Red Hat and SUSE. As with any multi-vendor deal, IBM plays them off each other to make sure neither demand too much.

    A hostile SUSE wouldn't be the end of the world, but it would cost IBM significant money and (more importantly) time.

    OTOH. Jonathan Schwartz's comment comparing the situation to Microsoft explains a lot about why Sun has pissed away its market position. Their officers are obviously delusional.

    NoWayJose 08/03/04 10:31:01 AM EDT

    Sun's in for an unpleasant surprise if they think such a purchase would let them "own" linux

    Bob 08/03/04 09:36:22 AM EDT


    Sun is just trying to push IBM's buttons.