Software is a brutal business

The software industry continues to be fertile ground for newspaper copy. The SCO versus IBM court battle continues to rumble on, although there have been fewer exchanges of late.

The software industry continues to be fertile ground for newspaper copy. The SCO versus IBM court battle continues to rumble on, although there have been fewer exchanges of late.

One of the more recent utterances on the situation, which centres on SCO’s accusation that IBM violated its intellectual property rights by using SCO code in Linux, comes from the father of free software, Richard Stallman.

Stallman takes the whole argument to a higher plane, asserting that it’s morally wrong to prohibit copying software. He finishes by saying SCO’s action is irrelevant because “Linux itself is no longer essential”. That is, there are other unencumbered alternatives. Alarmed? Rather than risk misquoting him, find out what he has to say here.

The other ongoing distraction in the software world is Oracle’s attempt to buy PeopleSoft. Oracle boss Larry Ellison is not one to take no for an answer. PeopleSoft has been as plain as can be in rebuffing the database billionaire’s attentions, but Ellison’s showing no sign yet of giving up.

Instead, he’s changed tack, and is attempting to court PeopleSoft customers. One wonders whether he’s left that approach a little too late. The eye-catching feature of Oracle’s original bid for PeopleSoft, made a month ago, was the complete absence of an attempt to reassure PeopleSoft customers. There were no words to the effect that “Larry will take you to his bosom and make sure all your enterprise software worries will be over”.

The opening statement of the June 6 announcement was “the acquisition of PeopleSoft will immediately make Oracle an even more profitable and competitive company”. The only mention of customers came in the sentence "although we will not be actively selling PeopleSoft products to new customers, we will provide enhanced support for all PeopleSoft products”. The opposite of reassuring, you might say.

Last week, though, Ellison initiated a PeopleSoft customer charm offensive. An ad on the back page of a UK-published business mag ran through a list of Oracle’s commitments (and they can be taken as coming from the horse’s mouth, since Ellison is reputed to write his own ad copy). First is a promise not to “shut down” PeopleSoft products. This will be comforting, given the widespread interpretation of Oracle’s intentions as being the forced migration to Oracle E-Business Suite. Ellison also commits to extending support beyond that committed to by PeopleSoft itself.

Oracle will undoubtedly insist its intentions had never been otherwise. But the impression from the outset has been that all Ellison was interested in was buying several billion dollars' worth of customers for Oracle’s business applications. It’s going to take more than a few ads in the business press to overcome that perception. In the end, customers won’t decide whether the deal proceeds: the deadline for PeopleSoft shareholders to take up Oracle’s offer is July 7, although Oracle has said it could extend it.

Elsewhere, another bunch of stroppy shareholders are digging in their heels. Desktop application developer Corel is subject to a bid by an investment company, Vector Capital, to sell up, meaning it will cease to be publicly owned. Shareholders opposed to the deal have launched to argue that the offered price -- $US1.05 -- is too low, and that the company’s present course is sound.

But the nearest thing to a local Corel spokesman, the Sydney-based regional head of sales, backs the deal. Gavin Watson, himself a shareholder who has “seen the highs and lows” during four years at the company, says a return to private ownership would “remove the distractions” of being publicly traded. The company could then go about its business of expanding in the region.

Watson maintains it is doing just that -- without revealing sales figures. Even in the face of Microsoft’s $10 million discounted deal with New Zealand schools, Watson says Corel is signing up new Corel Licence for Learning customers ($525 a year a school for WordPerfect Office Suite, Coreldraw and other bits and pieces).

But it’s an uphill battle. Watson concedes free desktop suites are not making life easy, even with the latest WordPerfect version, 11, available as an upgrade (from practically anything) for $299. Software has become a brutal business.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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