The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace, writes the British science fiction author Douglas Adams in his popular 1979 novel The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Given that Adams was one of […]
The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace, writes the British science fiction author Douglas Adams in his popular 1979 novel The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Given that Adams was one of the invited speakers at this week’s Santa Cruz Operation SCO Inc’s 11th annual customer conference, SCO Forum, in the bosky campus of UCSC which is south of the mountains of Santa Cruz, it’s well worth thinking how much Improbability may be driving the plans of his hosts.
By Gary Flood
Certainly it was SCO itself – in the form of senior vice president of marketing for the Product Business Unit Ray Anderson – who directly introduced a spaceship analogy with his conceit that Tarantella, the mysterious all-knowing savior of SCO, could be likened to a mighty starship, swift approaching Planet Earth – or our utterly insignificant little blue green planet as Adams calls it in his book – where its touch down will forever change the lives of the inhabitants. SCO hopes it will at least forever change the looks of its balance sheet, first and foremost. Ever since it shouldered the burden of caring for Unix from its last, rather neglectful, foster parent, Novell Inc, in 1995, SCO, under the leadership of its chief executive Alok Mohan, has struggled to convince some of us that its warp drive dilithium crystals aren’t cracked beyond repair. SCO turned in 1995 revenue of $184.1m, with a net loss of $6.1m; in 1996 that had climbed a tad, to $207.9m, but with net losses of $22.4m, and for its fiscal 1997 – the SCO financial year ends at the end of September – it will probably lose money again. At least, its fortunes so far in 1997 have been about as depressed as Adams’ comic creation, the lugubrious Marvin the Paranoid Android. Starting off the year with its best ever quarter, with sales of $56m up 18% year on year with net profit of $3.96m compared to a loss the previous period of $38.4m, SCO soon slumped, with second quarter net profits down 67% at $974,000, on revenues that rose 7% to $54.1m. To try and repair the damage the company did some financial ‘surgery’ as it dubbed it, culling 10%, 120, of staff worldwide, but that resulted in a restructuring charge of $8.4m that saw its third quarter racking up net losses of $24.6m compared to profit of $3.3m the previous year on revenue down 42.3% to $31.2m. Net losses for the nine months to June 30 were $19.7m, down from $26.5m the previous year, on revenue that fell 7.1% to $141.9m. Against that backdrop the statistics the 18 year old company bandies around – that SCO servers support 2,774 different computers and peripherals, that it enjoys close to 80% of the Unix-on-Intel market share, that it has 12,000 independent software vendors and 15,000 major applications running on its software – don’t actually help that much in diffusing the notion that SCO is in trouble. SCO is 100% dependent on a market of resellers and independent software vendors that use its low-cost Unix as the backbone for applications for, typically, small to medium enterprises, and it has never cracked the higher end of the marketplace.
Sizzling in the Redmond flames
As corporate Unixes feel the heat from the threat of Windows NT, SCO Unix’s feet are already sizzling in the Redmond flames. As day follows day those reseller individuals are thumbing through Windows magazines, doing the mental math on making the change to NT, a move prompted by the same magazines’ insistence that to know Windows 95 is to know NT, so how hard could it be to manage? Don’t answer unless you’ve actually sat down with the thing. Having said that, SCO is scrambling its fighters to try to meet the threat of sliding into total irrelevance. The theme of last year’s SCO Forum was The Internet Way of Computing; this year’s was, er, Network Computing, so there’s progress. Mohan’s thesis is that Unix is the best platform for the server end of the NC paradigm, he sells Unix, QED he’ll win. This must be the case since the Great White Hope of SCO right now is not Gemini but the product named after the frenzied southern Italian dance attributed to the after-effects of the bite of that deadly arachnid, the Tarantula. Gemini will be, as so often noted in these pages, the merged SCO Open Server-UnixWare product, also to be called UnixWare, which will finally debut. But at the end of the day Gemini is just another version of an operating system. Tarantella is something wholly different and unutterably more awesome, it seems (CI No 3,055). One struggles to find the right word for what it actually is – SCO executives at various promptings this week repudiated the term middleware, web server, even a neologism helpfully suggested by a longtime SCO OEM, Web Objectware. It is at the very least server software that lets clients running Java gain access to back end databases and applications, using a clever Adaptive Internet Protocol intelligent heuristic set of class libraries that automatically adapts itself to the protocol being used to guarantee maximum performance. Ray Anderson tells us it offers immediate browser access to corporate applications without disruption, allowing PCs to become thin clients all in all offering corporations the ‘fast track’ to Network Computing. And indeed Tarantella does seem to be a useful and interesting product, no matter that SCO has failed to define a sexy enough category to place it in. The problem is that building it and getting it ready for its February release, when it was originally meant for Labor Day next month, on top of the money spent on finishing off Gemini, also delayed until sometime before the end of the year now, has burnt a lot of SCO cash. At the same time SCO has had to cut its sales and marketing spend, from 41% in 1995 to 38% in 1996. So SCO cannot possibly hope to make any real folding stuff from resellers until the second half of its fiscal 1998 off Tarantella and conservative on platform changes, implying it cannot hope to make much money from Gemini, excuse us, System V Release 5 of Unix from that segment either. Which now explains why this Forum saw so much emphasis on partners, especially Intel and Compaq. Compaq and SCO have set up some kind of joint multi-million dollar marketing fund, and Intel executives were ten a penny telling anyone who would listen just how much they loved SCO and Unix in general. Say what? Intel loves Unix not Wintel? Compaq loves SCO not Microsoft? There is no great contradiction here, it turns out. SCO’s partners need it to succeed, or at least not fade away, because they want to hedge their bets. Intel just wants to shift boxes with Intel Inside written on them.
Compaq and the others want SCO to be there so there is some alternative to Windows on at least some Intel boxes. In this view SCO becomes the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, bolstered by nervous Western European nations as a buffer to Tsarist Russian expansion. Would these firms go so far as to step in and prop up SCO? We may never know, given that Tarantella may very well save the day. The challenge is to shorten the time between now, and the doubtless stinky fourth quarter results Mohan must bring to the Street in six weeks or so, and sometime next year, when the Tarantella starship hovers above our dumbstruck cities. Let’s hope we’re all that patient – and that the wait won’t be as painful as it was for poor old Marvin the Paranoid Android. The first ten million years were the worst, said Marvin, and the second ten million, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline. Time for Marvin – as well as SCO – to get some good news.