Random Excess, Ross Laver

Viking Canada, 1998, 339 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-87972-X

Does it make sense to read a book about Corel? Probably.

Does it make sense to read a book about Corel if you’re an Ottawa-area Comp.Sci. graduate? Sure.

Does it make sense to read a book about Corel if you’re an Ottawa-area Comp.Sci. graduate who likes to post his reviews on his web site and then put his web site on the resume he’s sending to Corel? Probably not.

You have to understand that Corel is a Pretty Big Deal in the Ottawa area. Not as much as the all-powerful federal government, or even telecommunication giants Newbridge and Nortel, but Corel has two important advantages: immediate popular name-recognition and a certain technological sexiness, given the sophistication of their flagship product CorelDraw! It’s one thing to be slaving away at code for the Canadian civil service, or for world-wide telecommunications, but nothing beats seeing “your” software lavishly advertised in trade magazines (or in the local-area newspaper).

That Corel seems almost suicidally aggressive only adds to its image. Even the pressure-cooker reputation of the company deterred few of us Comp.Sci. graduates of sending an application there in hope of a job.

So, one thing leading to another, it does makes sense to read up about Corel. It’s a testimony to Ross Laver’s skills that he was able to write a general-interest business book about Corel and its founder Michael Copeland while still appealing to the hardcore technical members of his audience.

Laver’s account begins along with Copeland himself, with a description of the small English tourist town on the decline in which he was born. The path of young Michael Copeland through the English education system is a bit soporific, but already highlights his competitive qualities. Then, upon graduation, Copeland is offered a job at Northern Telecom. Like many immigrants here on a whim, he will never go back.

The tale gets more interesting as Copeland leaves Northern Telecom, creates Mitel, watches Mitel become an industry leader, leaves Mitel, creates Corel, watches Corel become an industry leader… Copeland was lucky enough to find gold twice; such a personality is neither simple nor easily resumed. It would be too tempting to paint Michael Copeland as an ambition-mad intellectual butterfly going from one thrill to an other. Fortunately, Lever paints a portrait that is multi-faceted, tough but fair. Despite some damning passages, Copeland comes across as a figure to be respected. One gets the feeling that Copeland would be pleased. Then again, Lever did have several interviews with him during the preparation of his book…

Otherwise, Lever manages to infuse a sense of palpable excitement in the chapters describing the first releases of CorelDraw! The race to beat competing software houses to the market is succinctly represented, as well as the ultimate technical superiority of the released product. These chapters neatly encapsulate both the technological and the marketing aspects of software development in an unusually accessible manner, even for non-technical readers.

The biggest problem of the book is not related to the content of the book itself: It’s that whatever happens, Lever left his tale at a moment of crisis: Corel still in debt, a declining market share, some heavy sniping from users and a drive toward Java technology. On the other hand, the question isn’t definitely resolved even a year later. But who knows how this book will read in a few more years?

Until then, Random Excess is a pretty good account of the Copeland/Corel story. It’s a delightful change to read about high-stake computer stories taking place around Rideau Canal or Carling Road, rather than Silicon Valley. Especially for local-area computer-science graduates.

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