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Corel's Comeback: What's .NET's Role?

by Malcolm Dean

When troubled Corel Corporation accepted a $135 million investment from Microsoft last October, many called it a desperate, final act. Standing under the sword of an antitrust court, Redmond certainly needed all the "competition" it could find, especially in office applications. Leading Windows publications were all but sending flowers to Corel's undertaker after the 15-year-old had bled red ink for years and stumbled, along with so many others recently, in attempting too early to make the Linux desktop a standard alternative to Windows.

The revelation that Microsoft's contract with Corel to port .NET to Linux was secretly extended to include FreeBSD, followed by announcements of open source .NET projects from Ximian and the Free Software Foundation, showed that Corel is once again the canny survivor dancing on the edge. But by showing a profit two quarters ahead of target, the edge is no longer financial. Moreso than many vendors, Corel now stands poised to help create the next generation of standards, and to deliver applications employing them across key environments.

With the departure of Corel founder Dr. Michael Cowpland, Corel no longer tilts at the Dragon of Redmond. Reaching into its 15-year heritage to renew personal relationships with leaders within Microsoft, Corel's new mission will ultimately impact every one of us to some degree.

Rescued from doom by Redmond's richesse and a revitalized executive team led by Derek Burney, Corel soon found its critics claiming that, like a string of predecessors large and small, Corel would be kept in its place by its new work-for-hire relationship with Microsoft. The five-year agreement with Microsoft granted Corel a fairly exclusive look at the .NET source code, for the purpose of supporting .NET in Corel's products and making Corel's product services "consumable as .NET services."

Thus, Microsoft ensures that Office will not be the only productivity suite to support .NET. And this includes the .NET Framework, the Common Language Runtime which manages cross-language integration, objects, memory, a substantially updated version of Active Server Pages called ASP+, and security. Corel will make any business process it publishes consumable using the Web Services Description Language, and register these services via UDDI. Authentication, calendaring, directory, and search services, which Microsoft calls the "Building Block Services," may also be included.

.NET port is "work for hire"

Of course, the interesting part comes in point three of the agreement, entitled "Option for Linux Port." Corel agrees to port "some portion or all" of the .NET Framework to Linux "if Microsoft elects to exercise the option." This is "work for hire," which means that although Corel would benefit from the intellectual exercise, it would simply hand over the finished code to Microsoft. It would have no automatic right to include it in the Linux version of its products, and will pay the same royalties as anyone else.

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Corel says .NET Web features will appear in its products next year. Meanwhile, work proceeds on a full line of graphics design products for Mac OS X, including the popular products it acquired from MetaCreations -- Painter, KPT, and Bryce. Meanwhile, WordPerfect Office 2002 is receiving positive reviews for its ability to handle files old and new, plus powerful features such as Publish to PDF and Net2Phone.

Development of all these products is managed by Corel's new CTO, Rene Schmidt, the former Executive Vice-President for Linux products. Rene started his career at Corel with the Common User Interface and installation teams, which may explain the strong emphasis on user friendliness in the design of Corel OS. Corel Draw 10 incorporates a technology which watches the application and helps it recover from failures without losing data. IBM and Microsoft are now putting similar emphasis on stability and recovery into their products.

Buying Micrografx

In mid-July, Corel announced plans to acquire Micrografx, Inc., adding to its strength in the illustration and publishing markets. Financially suffering but recovering, Micrografx has products that would not only strengthen Corel's award-winning graphics lineup, but also give Corel a leg up in wireless and Web-based graphics services. Corel plans to give its customers tools to simultaneously create graphics-rich content for multiple channels, and enhance Micrografx's Enterprise Process Management (EPM) division, which has struggled against Microsoft's Visio.

Micrografx President and CEO James L. Hopkins says that in the near term, Micrografx development is not expected to move from Dallas. Though there are no current plans to port Micrografx's desktop products to Linux or the Macintosh, he believes their Image2Web and Active Graphic Server projects are well-suited to the .NET architecture, and could benefit from running on Linux. Expect some interesting publishing product announcements from Corel and Adobe in a year or so. With its cross-platform capabilities, Corel will put Adobe's lack of interest in Linux to the test.

If consummated, the Micrografx deal will epitomize the three main goals that Corel's new game plan identifies. The first is to strengthen its position in the graphics market. The second is to add Web-based functionality to its products. And the third is to develop new technology for fast-growing emerging markets such as wireless and Web-based services.

Corel has also launched the new procreate(tm) sub-brand, re-emphasizing its ties with the Mac OS professional creative market, leading off with Painter 7 (Mac OS and Windows) next month.

.NET and cross-platform development

Though Corel has cross-platform strengths, it does not employ a cross-platform development tool such as Trolltech's Qt. "We've found Qt robust and a good tool to use," said Schmidt. "For the Mac, however, we use Code Warrior. For Windows, we use VisualStudio, and for Linux we use standard open source tools. It's not really duplicative to have three development streams. Word Perfect for Linux is run through a porting layer, and the same for Mac OS. The multi-platform code is not really different streams; there are just minor differences between OSes."

Schmidt believes that .NET will allow Corel to get its applications running on other platforms, as well. "We were looking at a similar technology four years ago," he said. "We were looking for the next platform which would allow distributed apps across platforms and the Internet, using standards for internal communications. The .NET concept has been around in several forms. A lot of the early confusion was to compare the way people looked at services running across the network."

Schmidt explains that Corel is porting the .NET infrastructure to FreeBSD for Microsoft, and has agreed to provide .NET flavors of its applications. Microsoft's selection of FreeBSD does not affect Corel's interest in Linux, he adds, but with Corel's emphasis on returning to profitability, there's a keen eye on what it costs to do business.

"OSes are much less important now," said Schmidt. "We're talking about distributed devices that must talk to each other. We're at the beginning of a new era of computing." Determined to be known as technology innovators, he says Corel is interested in about 20 standards organizations, and plans to be more involved in Open Standards and decision-making groups.

Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's VP of System Software, is not impressed. "Corel's alliance with Microsoft has seriously damaged its reputation in the open source community," he says. "Falling back to graphic content creation could make it popular in certain vertical markets. But Corel has effectively sidelined itself."

"It's rather telling that FreeBSD hasn't come up in conversations I've had for a very long time," says Kusnetzky. "It's clear that .NET is the most recent example of Microsoft's usual business strategy -- control the APIs, the tools, the basic system services, the personal productivity applications. With 92% of desktop OS shipments and 41% of server OS shipments in 2000, Microsoft can certainly implement its view of Web application services before anyone else can do much about it."

Nevertheless, with the announcement of a $1.2-million contract from the U.S. Navy's Space and Warfare Systems Command to develop security extension for FreeBSD, in addition to the nod from the Microsoft/Corel project, the FreeBSD Core Team is smiling these days.

The announcements of Ximian's Mono and the Free Software Foundation's DotGNU only hasten the acceptance of .NET and its spread beyond Microsoft's borders. The OS and application wars are over, because they are quickly becoming irrelevant to a brave new horizon of networked, converged, and wireless applications. And it looks like Corel, ever the feisty, misunderstood innovator and survivor, will be among the first to cheer us all in that direction.

Malcolm Dean is a broadcast journalist, technology writer and IT consultant based in Los Angeles.

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