Philanthropy among companies in the IT sector is as rare as honesty among politicians, so some people may have viewed with some surprise Microsoft's $135m (£93m) investment in Corel, the troubled productivity software and Linux supplier. However, a federal court filing made just over a week ago by Corel indicates that the two companies are planning to work together closely on developments related to Microsoft's .net initiative, writes Danny Bradbury.
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Corel, which has seen the resignation of its controversial CEO Michael Cowpland and had been hit hard by the failure of a merger with Borland/Inprise, will develop all of its applications to support Microsoft's .net initiative.
"We intend to port all our applications to .net and that includes the Linux applications," said a Corel spokesman. The ports will include a .net version of Corel's Linux-based office suite.
Nevertheless, this alone doesn't justify such a large investment in a relationship between the two companies. A Microsoft US spokesman explains that the companies also resolved some legal issues as part of the investment. "We see them as one of the two important applications providers," he said.
This is little more than PR sleight of hand. Corel has been attempting to forge a place in the personal productivity software market since it purchased Word Perfect from Novell, thus expanding out of the graphic design space. But Microsoft has practically owned the office suite market for years, forcing the likes of Corel onto the sidelines. Corel's expertise in the Linux market is also overplayed; it certainly has a desktop Linux, based on the Debian platform, but desktop Linux is an unpopular market that sits in the shadow of the server-based Linux sector, which is where the growth opportunities are.
So, what is Microsoft playing at? One possible answer is that it wants to build support for elements of the .net initiative into the Linux operating system itself. When it announced .net in June, the company explained that it would enable companies to offer software services over the Internet, essentially creating applications that exist on different computers across the Internet.
Given that Linux is threatening Windows in the server space, it makes sense for Microsoft to ensure that this open source server operating system is capable of supporting software services produced under .net. Microsoft is realising that in the world of Web-based applications, it cannot obtain exclusive control of the server market with Windows.
Although other companies such as Red Hat and Caldera are logically better choices as partners to help build .net support into Linux, they may not be particularly willing to work with Microsoft. Caldera had a long-running lawsuit with the company over Dos, for example, which was only recently resolved. Red Hat is doing well enough in the Linux market without needing to jump into bed with Microsoft.
Corel, on the other hand, was a perfect choice. The fact that the company is developing its server-based Linux as we speak makes things even better for Microsoft, which can help to mould .net support into the system at an early stage.
Microsoft has tried to extend support for its component frameworks to non-Windows platforms before - a brief fling with Software AG in 1997 led to EntireX, a scheme to port its Component Object Model componentware to other platforms including mainframes - but that faded from view.
Perhaps this time, the company will be more successful in breaking out of its own gilded cage.