The story of a failure (Corel)

Now, to turn the tables on the previous examples, we'll look at Corel, a company from the world of Windows that threw out a feeler into the world of Linux. Corel, which is known for its graphics and office programs in Windows, once made a brief foray into the Linux world. Unfortunately, Corel is the warning example here, because it never really managed to fit in with the Linux crowd. It never really became one of us.

In 1999, Corel went out on a limb with its own Linux distribution at the same time as it was launching Linux versions of its popular WordPerfect Office and CorelDraw software. Because the Linux versions available at the time weren't as user-friendly as they are today, Corel also figured that the average WordPerfect user needed a simpler Linux to run it on, so they decided to develop their own Linux version as well.

Because there was no decent word processing program for Linux at the time - at least not one capable of satisfactorily handling documents generated by Word, Microsoft's word processing software - the Linux community was in the main looking forward to the new WordPerfect, but people also thought there was a market for an easy-to-use Linux.

Corel, however, had an ulterior motive for its Linux adventure. The company had been sidelined in the word-processing business, because Microsoft had successfully leveraged the most out of its monopoly. A couple of years earlier, in an attempt to gain independence from Microsoft, Corel had announced it was moving all its programs onto the Java platform. When Java proved wholly unsuitable for the purpose, they piled up their markers on Linux. Corel was ready to go with any technology that could be used to attack the Microsoft hegemony.1 And what was at stake in this game? Becoming the next Microsoft. The company wanted to offer people an alternative operating system and have it equipped not only with an alternative office program but also with drawing and image processing software.

In part, Corel did this rather well. The company making the world's most popular graphics program left an indelible mark on the KDE desktop environment, for instance, as the KDE programmers learned to tell the difference between icons created by artists and those created by engineers. If nothing else, at least Corel gave Linux a snappy look. In addition to KDE, Corel also put a lot of effort into the Wine project, which it used to port WordPerfect and CorelDraw to Linux.

However, when it was released, the Corel Linux OS was no earth-shattering improvement. Finnish users were surprised to find the operating system offered imperfect support for Scandinavian characters, something other Linux distributions had perfected years ago (naturally enough, since Linux was born in Finland). Although the effort to create expressive graphics and a user-friendly interface was commendable, the novelty quickly paled because of the failure to handle the basics, which negated the benefits of the new easy-to-use features.

Corel Linux was based on the popular distribution Debian Linux. But in those days Debian offered a total of six CDs packed with various Linux programs, whereas Corel had included only one CD's worth in its distribution. Simple is beautiful and all that, but sooner or later many Debian users who tried Corel naturally felt disappointed when some program they wanted to use wasn't available with Corel. However, there was a solution: Corel Linux was still compatible with the installation packages of programs made for Debian, which meant Corel Linux users could stock up their Linux from Debian's well-filled larder.

However, this convenient solution didn't save Corel in the long run. Many Corel Linux users ended up using Debian, because that's where all the good programs were anyway. Nor did staid old Debian suffer from the other little problems that beset Corel: for instance, the non-English alphabets worked as they should. Not only Debian, but the other old Linux versions also held their ground against Corel. The basics were running smoothly and by then the other distributions had also improved their user-friendliness. Finally, Corel could no longer compete.

Corel's Linux adventure exemplifies how difficult it is to be the new kid on the block and challenge companies that have been around longer. One year of Linux experience doesn't give even the best minds in a Windows software company the upper hand against gurus who have been in the business for more than five years, often a couple of decades if you include their Unix experience. There wasn't anything seriously wrong with Corel Linux, but neither was there anything amazing about it.

Although the Linux effort of this large and established software company received a lot of publicity, it failed to set off any great migration of Windows users to Linux. When Corel Linux came, Windows users continued using Windows, and Linux users continued using their own brand of Linux. Because of its size, Corel did attract a fair number of people to try its product, but in the history of Linux it is now no more than a note in the margin.

WordPerfect and CorelDraw didn't do well in the world of Linux either. Despite being eagerly awaited - it was the first time any major software familiar from the world of Windows had been released for Linux - in the end both of them stayed firmly on the retailers' shelves. As Windows users, Corel's old customers didn't need the Linux versions; but it probably surprised Corel more that the Linux users weren't interested either. WordPerfect, which supported Word files, met with some success, but otherwise the Corel Linux project was a flop. Typical Linux users considered WordPerfect to be a bad alternative to Microsoft Word. Both were equally closed, so were of no interest to Linux users committed to Open Source. In addition to which, Microsoft Word was - tough but true - many times better than WordPerfect. So, anyone stuck with using closed software in the first place would at least want to use the best there was, and that wasn't WordPerfect.

Within two years, Corel's Linux adventures had come to an end. They were out of money - most of which had been spent earlier on the failed Java experiment. The company desperately tried to fix its deficit by merging with Borland, but at the last minute the owners of Borland realized what was going on and pulled out. With no cash, Corel was hovering on the brink of bankruptcy when Microsoft - in the middle of its monopoly trial - rescued its competitor with a thick wad of notes. Earlier, Microsoft had done the same thing to prevent Apple from going under. Keeping its competitors alive, albeit feeble, allowed Microsoft to prove in court that it was not a monopoly.

As if by chance, all Corel's Linux projects were closed down just weeks after Microsoft had become a partner. Later, the Linux operations were sold to a company called Xandros, which still publishes an easy-to-use Linux distribution. In the past year or so, Xandros has even become quite a respectable player, although it has yet to match the market share of the big Linux distributions.

With the ease of hindsight, Corel's mistakes can be summed up in two main points. First, the company's motives were all wrong. It squandered the last of its money trying to create a weapon against Microsoft, instead of working on ways to keep its own customers happy.

Second, Corel made a miscalculation that resembles Nokia's WAP adventures. Corel seemed to have thought wrapping Linux in a pretty blue box with the Corel logo on it would be enough to get people rushing to the stores to buy it, just because it was there. Obviously, that just doesn't happen, which Nokia and Corel have both now learned to their cost.

Corel was also spurned for not being one of us. The engineers at Corel had downloaded parts of Linux from the Internet, worked on them quite nicely, wrapped it all up, and stuck it on the shelf for people to buy. There was never a true meeting between the Linux community which is used to open development, and Corel which is used to working within the company walls. Had there been more interaction and had it come at an earlier stage, some basic problems - such as the need to incorporate a Scandinavian keyboard - could definitely have been avoided. When Corel later completed the German, French and Dutch versions of its Linux, it marketed the distribution as the first multi-lingual Linux OS. That showed gross arrogance towards the other Linux companies and the Linux community, especially as Corel hadn't even made new translations of its own, but had copied the language versions from other existing Linux distributions, mainly Debian.

Many companies smaller than Corel have tried the same thing. "Hey, let's copy those free Open Source programs from the Internet, put them on CDs, wrap them up, and sell them,' they think. These small companies are rarely even heard of, but Corel was big enough for its adventure to merit some attention. Even so, such an attitude is a sure sign that you're underestimating others. First and foremost, that's not the way to get in with the in crowd. And being alone, Corel was weaker than the rest.

For Corel, the foray into Linux was a sad story, but for the principles of Open Source and for Linux users even this sad story is a victory. If it had been a traditional closed software project, it would have quietly disappeared. The project would have been cancelled and the software would have gone with it. But in the world of Open Source, work that has been done never disappears and a client can rest assured that life will continue, even if a distributor goes bankrupt and stops supporting the product you use.

The work Corel put into the Wine project is still part of today's Wine. And with Wine you can still use CorelDraw and WordPerfect on Linux.2 KDE is not the same as before the Corel visit, either. Gone is the lacklustre engineering style, and instead KDE has become a really artistic desktop environment, which is even being copied by old hands like Apple and Microsoft! Today's KDE is the work of new artists, but Corel's brief participation in the project was revolutionary, and although the company stumbled the work itself was not lost.

Verdict: Corel played its Linux game according to the rules of Open Source and hacker ethics. The company genuinely did a lot of good work on its Linux, but the product flopped. Just making something is no guarantee that customers will flock to buy it. And most of all, it's vital to show some respect for any community you want to join.

A penguin, as in the Linux icon, happens to be a herd animal which makes it an appropriate symbol of hacker ideology. Penguins stay warm by huddling together. Corel tried to survive on its own, and its Corel Linux froze to death.

  1. 1. This is a good contrast to the section on Tolerance in the Part Two of this book, where Linus Torvalds said he wasn't really interested in what Microsoft was doing because he doesn't use Windows. What he did with Linux was to amuse himself. Perhaps Corel ought to have focused more on minding its own business instead of almost bankrupting itself by attacking Microsoft.
  2. 2. But it takes a lot more work now than it did when the same programs were available, ready-to-go, direct from Corel.

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