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Curtains for Corel?

The computer graphics pioneer could have owned the Macintosh productivity market

By B. Miller

What is it about companies whose names start with “Co”? There seems to be a history of computer firms with that particular characteristic soaring to new heights of technological innovation and financial success virtually overnight, only to plunge into chaos and bankruptcy soon after.

“Show me examples,” you say? Try Commodore. Or Coleco. Or Corel?

As is well-known by now, Corel announced that it may be facing bankruptcy within the next few months. The company downplayed this frightening possibility, while their best escape from this fate, a merger with Borland/Inprise, was called off. They’re now seeking “alternative funding sources.”

Perhaps they’ll find an investor or merger partner. Perhaps a coalition of Canada’s biggest banks will roar to their rescue with a leveraged financial bailout. Perhaps sales will magically improve. Or, perhaps Corel will simply fold. Regardless of what happens, one thing is for certain – the pioneering software company is at a new low point in its long career.

Started by maverick Canadian Michael Cowpland, Corel had a key role in delivering easy-to-use graphics tools to the masses, in the form of Corel Draw for Windows. Macintosh creative partisans may snicker at Corel Draw’s limited capabilities relative to Freehand or Illustrator, but for millions of computer users who couldn’t afford a Macintosh and didn’t want to purchase an Atari Mega ST or Amiga, Corel Draw represented an easily-obtained platform for creative work. It went on to become one of the most popular graphics tools in use throughout corporate and creative environments, being used worldwide for every possible design application - from currency design to drafting housing plans to creating marketing flyers.

Despite Corel Draw’s strong sales, the company’s first true opportunity for greatness occurred when it acquired the WordPerfect Office franchise from Novell in the mid-1990s. At the time, the office productivity marketplace was in considerable flux, with Microsoft starting to assert its dominance. Corel, eager to compete, purchased the suite and launched a direct frontal assault on Microsoft in the Windows marketplace. We all know what happened. Corel still has bruises from the bludgeoning it took at Microsoft’s hands. The sad irony is that Corel could have won a major battle against Microsoft had it properly leveraged the WordPerfect Office franchise.

In the mid-1990s, only one real office suite existed for the Macintosh – Microsoft Office. But Office was not received well by the Macintosh community. Word 6 was a bloated port from Windows 3.11, dragging the blistering performance of then-new PowerPC machines to a Mac-Plus-like crawl. PowerPoint suffered from stability problems. Cross-platform compatibility with Windows versions of Office was dismal. Desperate for decent word processors with a modicum of compatibility, Macintosh users turned en masse to WordPerfect 3.5 and Nisus Writer.

Corel’s WordPerfect for the Macintosh was a world-class word processor, with fantastic editing capabilities, great stability, and a snappiness that made it a joy to use. Its low cost was a fantastic bonus. In fact, WordPerfect was so clearly superior to Word 6 that even Microsoft employees in the Macintosh development unit switched to it. Unfortunately, Corel was content to allow WordPerfect’s development to stagnate, releasing only an “enhancement pack” for the word processor in 1997. The company discontinued development in 1999 and made it a free download available from its web site.

WordPerfect for Macintosh could have been a beachhead for a resurgent Corel to take the Macintosh productivity market. Passable Mac versions of Paradox, Quattro Pro, and Corel Presentations would have been welcome to those of us forced to deal with Microsoft Office. Unfortunately, Corel decided to focus its resources on porting Corel Draw to the Mac, a platform already blessed with an overabundance of graphics software.

Microsoft, never content to stop moving (or lose hundreds of millions in revenue), reacted to the Macintosh community’s rejection of Office by developing, with extensive user input, the excellent Office 98 suite – preserving its Macintosh franchise and the nearly $1 billion in annual revenues that come with it. Corel’s window of opportunity in this market slammed closed, and now Microsoft’s Macintosh sales alone far exceed those of the entire Corel Corporation.

Since losing this opportunity, Corel has seemed a company lost. It dabbled in Java versions of WordPerfect Office, network computers, and the latest revenue-free fad to hit the computing scene, Linux. As Microsoft continues to make inroads into remaining WordPerfect Windows marketshare, Corel looks increasingly like a company throwing everything it has at the wall, and seeing what sticks. Unfortunately, there’s not much time left.

Perhaps Corel’s Linux franchise will succeed – perhaps users really are ready for Linux on the desktop. The Linux craze, however, is unlikely to save the WordPerfect franchise, as Linux users are accustomed to free and low-cost software, not commercial suites. Regardless of what rescues them, I hope Corel succeeds – it’s always been an interesting and fun company to follow.

Lost opportunities, however, are far from fun.

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