Corel Smart Graphics Vision

Corel has a Don Quixotean history. Originally founded as a company developing software for CD read and write activities - Corel in the late 1980's developed a Draw program that along with Aldus Pagemaker helped keep alive a nascent desktop OS, Windows 2.0. Windows 2.x was so awful in reliability and performance users would just use the runtime version to fire up Corel Draw on their 286 and 386 machines with special provision for extended memory - up to 2MB, whew. Even before Windows, Corel Draw was a great success and its spectacular rise set a Windmill target for other Corel ventures.

Corel successively bought or developed desktop publishing software (Ventura); graphics software (RayDream-3D license and PhotoPaint -bitmap graphics); the

Paradox database and Quattro Pro spreadsheet from Borland plus Word Perfect to get into the desktop Office game; XML software line from SoftQuad, and the Micrografx technical graphics line. Along the way Corel developed internally Corel Java Office and Corel Linux. Each of these ventures had substantial upside potential - but in Don Quixotean (or Murphy ) fashion - none panned out like the original Corel Draw success.

So now Corel is proposing Deepwhite - or Corel Smart Graphics Studio. This is a vision for enabling Smart Graphics capabilities that utilizes open standards like JavaScript, XML, Web Services, and SVG-Scalable Vector Graphics to deliver highly flexible deployment of graphics to the desktop, Web, mobile, PDA and kiosk. It's a marketing teams dream - a way to deliver to major channels a uniform look and feel. while the logic, presentation, and data integration tasks are fairly neatly segregated into their respective domain experts - the business managers, the graphic artists and the programmers. This is the design vision of XML enacted. Once again, like in the case of DTP, Java, and Linux; Corel is on the technology edge - can they make it succeed this time ?

Enter Vector Capital

Vector Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm with a history of investments in tech ventures such as RealNetworks (of RealPlayer desktop media fame), UUNet, DataProducts, Cycare and a dozen others - Venture Capital seems to think the technology is promising enough to enter into an agreement to purchase Corel for $96M US. Now that Corel has as of May 31 2003 $86M US in net cash and receivables (yes, having deducted all liabilities) might make the acquisition a bit more attractive for Vector Capital. Also the fact that Corel's graphics division has quarterly revenues of $14M( with glowing reviews for the new Painter 8 and Corel Draw 11), Corel's WordPerfect Office 11 seeing $15M US in quarterly revenue increasing by 33% and the XML/Process Management group showing $2.3M US in revenue - all of these revenue streams are encouraging given the doldrums that have hit the software market in general.

But Vector Capital is hardly a chop shop, using a company's own cash to leverage a buyout only to sell off the pieces at better break up market valuation. Rather one would suspect Vector Capital sees some underlying value in the latest Corel Quixotean tilt with its Smart Graphics vision. Lets examine in a bit more detail what the nature and potential fruits of Corel Smart Graphics are to the market and Vector Capital.

The Smart Graphics Studio

The Corel Smart Graphics Studio is fairly simple in design. It includes:
  1)Corel Developer SG — where you design application interfaces, create templates, and map data
  2)Process Builder — where you construct server processes that utilize the Corel Server SG below
  3)Corel Server SG — where you deploy your dynamic Web applications
Within Corel Developer SG, there are three different workspaces dedicated to specific tasks:
  a) Design Editor — for designing interfaces. This is the default workspace.
  b)Template Builder — for building templates and specifying data inputs required for dynamic objects
  c)Data Mapper — for mapping templates to sample data.

Corel Developer will remind users of Macromedia Flash or an early version of Visual Basic. It has a drag and drop design surface with project tree and property sheets familiar to Java or Visual Studio developers for fast development of interfaces. This is where the presentation gets separated from logic and data/process mapping. The Developer's Design Editor, just like Flash has basic graphic design and rendering capabilities - but like Flash relies as much on imports from 3rd party resources. These include Corel's own Draw and PhotoPaint plus other major graphics programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, Deneba Canvas, Macromedia Fireworks plus Jasc WebDraw and PaintShop Pro. So graphics designers should be very comfortable with Corel Developer as will be UI programmers which use the Design Editor.

But what Developer has that Flash does not is a built in TamplateBuilder. This allows developers to create graphic components like a window throttle or a temperature gauge that change depending on the data they are linked to. For example the temperature gauge shows a red bar when displaying high temperatures, but a blue bar when displaying below freezing readings. The key is that reusable graphic components can be built with Developer's Template Builder. Designers and developers both should feel comfortable working with this tool.

In contrast, Developer's Data Mapper which feeds data in to templates is neatly broken off and will be primarily used by IT programmers and developers. Designers and business managers are neatly shielded from this task. However, business managers may find the Process Builder more to their liking . Process Builder sets up an application linking the previously created modules and templates to be assembled under certain business conditions into a workflow application. However, a fly sticks in the ointment at this point.

The Microsoft Dependency

Up to this point, Corel has followed a very open strategy utilizing open JavaScript, W3C approved SVG, open ODBC and Web Services for data sources and an open XML. Through Developer and Process Builder they have made linking these resources into smart graphic applications very straightforward. But the Corel SmartGraphics Server this all depends on, it only runs on Microsoft 2000 server (and presumably Windows 2003). This is not too bad but there is a further dependency on Internet Explorer 5.x. The Corel SVG Viewer should run in Netscape 7.02 but this developer could not get it to do so. However, the new Mozilla 1.5a with built in SVG support was able to run most, but not all of the Smart Graphics demos.

This is further complicated by the fact that Microsoft has announced that it will no longer updates its IE6.0 browser; but rather a new browser will emerge as part of the new Longhorn version of desktop Windows due out in mid 2005 - two years away. But if the SVG viewer has any problems - don't call Microsoft. And the Viewer does have the problem that it only runs in Windows - no Linux or Mac or other OS support. Clearly this Microsoft dependency on delivery is problematic in that Corel is promoting delivery on disparate channels: Desktop, PDA, mobile phone etc.

Also unlike Flash or Cult3D or MetaStream which all have standalone executables for their plugins which run in several desktop OS, Corel has yet to fill in the story here. This is very critical because Business Week and other major publications are arguing that Linux, Mac, PDAs and mobile phones have all become viable rival platforms to the PC. Now SVG and even JavaScript ports over to Linux, Mac plus many PDA and mobile platforms - so the ball is in Corel's court.

Truly Quixotean Challenge

Already we see Corel has some technical challenges ahead. Further complicating the issue is the fact that SVG, the cornerstone of Corel Smart Graphics, is going through some important revisions with SVG 1.2 due out at the end of this year with SMIL and XFORMs enhancements that will have big impacts on Corel Smart Graphics. But, Corel Smart Graphics really does deliver separation of presentation/graphic design, development/UI interface, and process building/controlling into fairly discreet and independent tasks. As well, some of the designer touches in Smart Graphics Studio are very beguiling. Will that be enough to take on such entrenched content and graphics developers as Adobe, Documentum, Lotus, Macromedia, and Microsoft ? Well don't count on the Bullboys of Bay Street to answer that question. They got aced in savvy, chutzpah, and/or trust capital by Vector Capital which plucked this "Heads - I win big, Tails - I chopshop and still come out way ahead" deal right from under their noses.

Jacques Surveyer is a consultant, see his site for further details on SVG and XML.

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