March 25, 1997 6:00 PM ET
Novell plays to crowd, but may need a new audience
By Renee Deger

  SALT LAKE CITY -- Novell Inc.'s annual BrainShare extravaganza, in its second day Tuesday, is one slick production. The problem with it is the wrong people are in the audience.

Conference attendees, mostly programmers, consultants and information services department heads, say the people who really need to witness Novell's song and dance are the corporate executives charged with making or approving large purchasing decisions.

So conference attendees are turning a deaf ear while hoping Novell is rehearsing a better number for taking on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT Server.

"It's not enough to get the message to us; we don't get a chance to influence the buyers. We get a call, and the client says 'switch us to NT,' because that is the one they've heard of," said Chris Dixon, a senior consultant for Interim Technology, an information services consulting firm in Oak Brook, Ill.

While attendees don't greet incoming CEO Eric Schmidt with the same excitement as Wall Street, they do think he is well-suited for the challenges that face him.

"Novell has great technology, but they have problems getting it to market," said Ivan Bengtsson, a software developer. "Schmidt is good for that," said Bengtsson, who came from Goteborg, Sweden, to attend.

He said Schmidt seemed to play a large role in moving Java from its beginnings as an esoteric programmer's language to the mainstream.

"I'm glad to see someone endorsing [Novell], its use of Java and its technology, especially Eric Schmidt," said Bill Kenny, a senior LAN systems technician at Caldor Corp., in Trumbull, Conn.

Kenny, a Certified Novell Engineer who has influenced every major Novell purchase made by his company during his tenure, said he is very hopeful that Novell will repair its broken image.

"I have a lot invested in [Novell], both professionally and personally," said Kenny. But with greater frequency, he said, he is finding himself going up against senior managers who have heard more about Microsoft's products than about Novell's.

Dixon, Kenny and many others like them attending BrainShare say they recommend Novell's products much more often than they recommend Microsoft's. While bearish to install compared to Microsoft's servers, Novell's are much easier to maintain and require significantly fewer pieces of hardware to run, say people certified to install both kinds of products.

But the clients often won't hear of it.

Upon visiting one client, Gallo Winery, in St. Helena, Calif., Michael Gough, a consultant with GE Capital IT Solutions, another consulting firm, was told to pull out the Novell servers and install Microsoft's.

"Their answer was so they could be like everyone else," said Gough. None of the executives who have asked for Microsoft's NT Server, he claimed, could explain coherently why they wanted that product or what it could accomplish for them.

Kenny added that Novell also does not seem to make the rounds among executives the way Microsoft's marketing machine does, instead leaving that responsibility to its information services departments.

Joe Marengi, Novell's CEO until April 7, when Schmidt takes the reins, said he knows the company's marketing has been lousy.

"The company had nowhere to go," said Marengi. But this year's BrainShare marks a change in all that. Going forward, the company will focus on the interoperability of its products and Novell's support of open standards, he said.

Marengi added that the company has launched a new ad campaign as well, but will use its new partnerships to help brand its products in myriad ways with customers.

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