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Rumors, Winks, And Brad Wardell - by Chris Wenham

Summary: With the proliferation of rumors that suggest Stardock is negotiating with IBM to be the publisher and marketer of a new OS/2 client, we interviewed Brad Wardell of Stardock Systems to get the dish.

Stardock was mum for a while as Ziff Davis reported and the newsgroups exploded on the idea that the small OS/2 and Windows software vendor from Michigan could get the nod from IBM to produce, publish and market a new version of OS/2 for the home and small business. It was a study in speculation, a patchwork of guesswork, thousands of people wondering just exactly what would it mean. Would Stardock get the hallowed source code? Would they assume development? Would they write the drivers and Fixpacks?

Ready to talk about this issue for the first time, we took the opportunity to have a chat with Brad Wardell -- the president of Stardock Systems -- and drill him for all he could tell us. But even yet, there's still much that he's keeping under wraps.

Is there any truth to the rumor now prolific on the newsgroups and even Ziff Davis UK that Stardock is negotiating with IBM to be the distributor and/or marketer for a new version of Warp Client?

Brad: There is some truth. Though the rumor implied that we'd somehow be getting the source code and developing it. What we're actually working on is if IBM chooses not to release a client version of the next version of OS/2, to allow us to *publish* a client version ourselves. This way, OS/2 customers who do want a client based on Aurora technology can obtain one.

What makes you think you can offer anything more than a trivial marketing effort?

Brad: Our viewpoint is that we would take the Linux route -- Stardock would essentially be like Redhat. What OS/2 needs more than anything else is a perception face lift. From a client perspective, nothing touches OS/2 in many regards -- certainly not Linux. Where Stardock will put its resources into is trying to help build a grass roots community. What most people don't realize is that most parts of OS/2 can be changed by end users. IBM never expected to be in the position of having to write all the file systems, drivers, and other low level stuff. A lot of OS/2's early budget was put into making OS/2 expandable without IBM being involved in that expansion. Many people, particularly Linux advocates, feel that you have to have the source code in order to extend the OS. That's only because of the way Linux was designed. OS/2's superior design allows developers to add a great deal to the OS. What Stardock will try to do is create an environment where the community will work together in bettering OS/2 in the future through a coordinated effort.

As evidenced by Warpstock and The OS/2 Netlabs, OS/2 already has pretty good grassroots support from both users and developers. What's wrong with these two existing organizations, and just what exactly is it that Stardock can add?

Brad: These organizations are a good start but the coordination still needs to be done. For instance, nothing is being done to coordinate improving the OS itself. I.e. "We need a Device Driver for X, who wants to do it?" and having people sign up to do it. This is done on Linux all the time but on OS/2, end users have tended to sit by and wait for a commercial vendor to do it all for them. We need to help create a community that does more for itself.

Obviously Warpstock is great for trade shows and OS/2 Netlabs is a good start for building on a freeware community, but there is so much more that can be done as evidenced by the Linux community.

How did these rumors get started anway?

Brad: Our theory is that Stardock's newsletter to customers (Stardock Magazine) which mentioned our endeavors (which was last Fall) simply got forwarded by a user to someone at ZD. The ZD writer than extrapolated a quite a bit and we end up with the article. Some OS/2 users have accused us of leaking these rumors to the press. Though, if we had done that, it would have been someone who works for ZD US such as Esther Schindler or something.

How far along are these talks and who at IBM have you spoken to?

Brad: That I cannot comment on in detail except to say quite far.

What actions has IBM made so far that lead you to think they might agree to your proposal?

Brad: I can't comment on that yet.

Everyone is assuming that if you get to publish a new OS/2 client, Stardock products like Object Desktop are likely to be bundled. Would they? And would it be a co-branded box or have only one or the other company's name on it?

Brad: No. While we would integrate some new features into the OS, Object Desktop would not be part of the OS.

The new OS would have a new name entirely with a moniker such as "Powered by IBM OS/2 Warp technology" on it. It would be a Stardock product however.

Would you then release an updated Object Desktop that gave these features to customers who want to stick with Warp 4?

Brad: Probably not.

Did you at any point pursue IBM to release OS/2 as an open-source product?

Brad: No because we already knew IBM couldn't do that. IBM licenses major chunks of OS/2 from third parties already.

Would you have access to the OS/2 source code yourself?

Brad: No. IBM would continue to create Fixpacks and device driver support for its OS/2 Warp Server for e-Business customers. [These] would also work on the new OS/2 client.

We're also assuming you'd supply the customer support for a Stardock branded Warp Client. Are you set up to handle this? What's the limit to the user base that you could comfortably handle?

Brad: No, in actuality, customer support would be done using open forums and such that Stardock would set up, but we would not provide free technical support. We would be taking the Redhat approach except that we would ensure that there was an infrastructure in which users could help each other. We would have support staff helping on the news servers we'd create but there would be no free voice technical support or free email support. Which, by the way, is the case now for OS/2 (IBM does not provide long term free support for OS/2 Warp 4 for instance).

Who would developers work with if they wanted to port or publish their applications on OS/2, Stardock or IBM?

Brad: Either. What the market needs is a viable alternative to Windows 98/NT on the client side. We think that developers would love to see a viable alternative too. Depending on the type of product they were writing, going to Stardock or IBM would make more sense.

Since you're comparing your approach so much to Redhat's, why OS/2? Why not just complete the same model all the way and produce a Linux distribution?

Brad: Because I don't see Linux as a good alternative client. It's still far too unpolished and well, to be honest, I like OS/2 a lot better.

What business advantages do you see from choosing to publish a version of OS/2?

Brad: First of all, with some control over what gets put into the box, I think we can help the third party community by bundling software and services with it. I also think we could make it a far far better OS than Warp 4 or Warp 3. We'd bundle things like Apache web server, integrate the new OS with Stardock.Net to make internet connectivity easier, we'd include the GNU compiler and have it install ready to go so that users can start writing OS/2 software, etc. It's very exiting just thinking of the rebirth the OS/2 operating system could achieve with an enthusiastic publisher.

Most people see Stardock as a games company that also does utilities. Jumping into operating systems is a wild departure. What do you see Stardock doing in a year from now?

Brad: Well, the funny thing is, Stardock's an applications software company first and a game company second. I think OS/2 e-Zine!'s Readers Choice Awards back that up pretty well, we won awards in most of the categories but only got a runner-up in the games category this year. :-)

I don't want to imply, however, that Stardock's going to abandon its cross platform strategy. Even if the next OS/2 client were to come from Stardock we would still put a lot of emphasis on our Win32 software. Object Desktop for Windows would continue forward (as a side note, Stardock WindowBlinds is the #5 most popular download on for instance -- 46,000 downloads in one week so you can imagine that most of our revenue comes from Win32 software). But hopefully, within a year of having an OS/2 client, we and other OS/2 ISVs could work together with the shareware and open source community to build OS/2 up again as a true and viable alternative to Win32 as a desktop client.

This project sounds like it's still not going to materialize within the next couple of months, but if IBM says yes, what's your most optimistic goal for a release? Late '99, early 2000?

Late 1999 would be our goal with this. It is really up to IBM, if they don't want to do a client, I think it's best to let someone license the new version of OS/2 (OS/2 Warp 5 for e-Business) minus the server parts and let them run with it. Given the cost of doing this (you have to pre-pay for a large number of licenses up front which obviously keeps most companies from being able to do this), we'll only move forward if IBM chooses not to do a client which right now appears to be the case (it doesn't look like IBM's going to do their own client as I write this but that may change).

If the deal falls through and IBM walks away from the table, are you still going to have anything to do with OS/2 beyond "maintenance mode"?

Of course. Stardock is committed to OS/2 either way. In the near term, we still plan to do OS/2 API based software and someday JAVA will mature enough where we can put some focus on that as well.

(At this point the interview concluded)

Editor's Commentary

One thing that bothers us the most is the fact that, by publishing a version of OS/2 under Stardock's name, the company will be trivializing the importance of the operating system. OS/2 has literally billions of dollars of development history behind it and, while not meaning to belittle Stardock in any way, a company that small and which still has a strong Windows software focus couldn't possibly give OS/2 the prestige it deserves. We think that's important, since as Brad himself pointed out: OS/2 already has an image problem.

What real, measurable impact a Stardock branded version of OS/2 could have is also highly questionable. Brad's motives are good, and the world certainly does need a healthy alternative to Windows. But at the moment the poster child of that movement is Linux. It's not as if OS/2 could slip back into its old role as "The Other PC Operating System." Making anyone beyond those already interested in OS/2 take notice would require either a genius marketing scheme or staggering amounts of energy. "Let's emulate Redhat" may or may not be a genius marketing scheme. After all, OS/2 still isn't a free operating system, and freed software is half of RedHat's business plan right there.

We're giving Stardock the benefit of the doubt, despite our reservations. If this incredible deal ever happens, we'll be there to cover it as equally as if it'd come direct from IBM. There's no way we'll ever complain if Brad actually makes it work.

Copyright © 1999 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696
February 16, 1999