Can Corel Change Its Colors?

When you think of graphics software companies, Corel probably doesn't rank among Mac users' favorites. While in Wintel neighborhoods, Corel's stature can be considered something Olympian, the Macintosh world never thinks of Ottawa, Canada, as Mt. Olympus. We all know that's found in Cupertino.

But this past week, the Canadian software maker announced, among other things, a renewed and vigorous focus on the Macintosh platform. And that may be cause for hope. Corel's purchase last year of MetaCreations graphics applications like Kai's Power Tools, Bryce, and Painter, shows a new vision, as well as a large investment in the faith of our once-forlorn Mac OS.

Corel underwent a series of financial and corporate difficulties in the past year. After founder Michael Cowpland resigned, new CEO Derek Burney took the reins of the company in his teeth, promising to return Corel to profitability by this year's third fiscal quarter. Burney says that by "building on our core strengths and directing our efforts strategically," Corel will not only reestablish its financial stability but also expand at an annual growth rate "of at least 20 percent over the next three years."

From a Mac users' perspective, that's a great vote of confidence. The growth Burney's talking about should be read as coming from Mac users. Focusing on growth in the creative-application market means focusing on the Mac.

Still, just because Corel sees us as a viable "new" market, that doesn't guarantee we'll like what they have to offer.

Corel has two tasks in front of it -- whether they turn out to be Herculean or simple remains to be seen. The first task is to convince Mac users that all those years of neglect and denial were just because the company didn't really know us. Now Corel has to show us that they finally "get it."

Second, the company must master the second labor of knowing what to touch and what to leave alone in its newly acquired suite of graphics applications.

Conquering the First Labor

Corel's "core strengths" are not necessarily those aspects most attractive to Mac users. Corel's past history as a lackluster Mac developer doesn't help its cause here either. The professional design community has long considered Corel to be a company that doesn't "get it." From its stale and staid logo depicting a hovering hot air balloon on down, Corel's approach never had any essence of cutting-edge aesthetic insight.

As if to compensate for any real gems of innovation in its software, the company would pour volumes of uninteresting clip art and Other-Than-Adobe typefaces into its packages. Even Windows users have complained about the number of CDs in CorelDraw's releases.

But the upcoming release of CorelDraw 10 promises to be fully Carbonized, with built-in multi-processing support. Since many applications are just now revving up to OS X support, this might be an excellent venue for Corel to throw off its tattered past and gain a foothold in the Carbonized environment.

Corel's large presence at the recent Macworld Expo offered many Mac users a fresh introduction to the new set of applications, as well as the company's proposed commitment to our platform. So does Corel get it yet? A positive sign can be found in its new logo -- a cool blue 3-D humanoid head surrounded by blue hash marks, and a forward-looking logotype that gives me the feeling Corel may very well be stepping out of the last century along with the rest of us.

The Second Labor

The acquisition of the MetaCreations apps had more than a few people worried that Corel might put its more-or-less bland appeal on top of those interfaces. But if the company acts like Macromedia did years ago when it took on FreeHand after Adobe bought Aldus, then we can breathe easy. Macromedia kept its mitts off the FreeHand interface and let the original developers guide the application's evolution. And it worked, helping Macromedia become a strong rival and contender for the throne in the graphics arena.

If Corel can let the KPT design team keep its quirky but innovative edge, the company may have a strong future on the Mac side of the fence. Bryce enthusiasts seem to be content that the application hasn't gone the way of the dodo. Painter's interface has remained pretty much the same, even though it, too, has been bandied from one overseer to another in its lifetime--from Fractal Design to MetaCreations and on to Corel.

Is The Third Labor Ours?

Corel seems to be doing its part to repair its neglected relationship with the Mac community. Now the next labor may be ours. Will we give Corel the time to prove its fealty, or will we shun the company the way it shunned us in the past?

The right question may not be whether we can forgive and forget. Instead, "Let's see what we can get" might be more to the point. Ask not what we can do for the developer, but rather what the developer can do for us.

Whether we can afford a "what have you done for me lately" attitude is another issue. But the market that Corel is bounding into is not docile. Competing software developers like Adobe and Macromedia have already staked out their claims, continually vying for more space. You also have professional users who are not wont to change their work habits or their affiliations.

In the final analysis, it's always good news to see name companies coming over to the Macintosh side in such a big way. Whether we can trust Corel to stay is another story. If nothing else, dumping that seventies-style hot air balloon from its logo is a good sign that Corel is looking to change for the better. It remains to be seen, however, if Corel is just swimming as hard as it can, or if it really does get it, and has learned to "think different" after all.

ANDREW SHALAT is a Los Angeles-based designer, illustrator, and writer. He's also a regular contributor at MacWeek.com.

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