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Novell proved itself as the Switzerland of the computer industry Tuesday by inviting Steven A. Ballmer, senior vice president of Microsoft Corp., to speak at its eighth annual technical development conference.

Microsoft is Novell's closest competitor in the computer networking market.Ballmer proved Microsoft's willingness to lay down its arms for the good of the computer industry by accepting the invitation.

"We saw this as a good opportunity to show the industry that while we are competitors in some areas, we are very cooperative partners in other areas," Jack B. Blount, executive director of strategic relations for Novell, told the Deseret News.

More than 2,000 people from around the world are attending the conference this week at the University of Utah. About 40 percent of the participants are software developers; 35 percent are systems integrators.

"I felt it was very important for the audience there to be challenged, to hear the direction and the opportunities that exist in the software and hardware industry to help grow the industry," Blount said. "A lot of these attendees don't get much opportunity to interact with people like Steve Ballmer and Andy Grove (president of Intel Corp.) and the likes of the keynotes we have this week."

Since its inception, Novell has pushed cooperation and partnerships as the best way to expand personal computing in light of rapid advances in technology that characterize the computer industry, Blount said.

"Nobody can cover all of them. Even IBM, the largest computer company in the world, has certainly seen and demonstrated that they cannot cover all the areas of technology."

Despite the fact they compete for shares of the networking market - Novell has 70 percent of the market, while Microsoft serves 8 percent - the companies have developed a partnership over the past year. Microsoft will release an updated version of its Windows program in April; Novell's Netware program will be packaged with the new release.

Microsoft rules the Windows word-processing market, which software analysts say is the wave of the future.

Ballmer also announced that Microsoft released a new version of its Excel spread-sheet program Tuesday and that the company is acquiring Fox Software.

Ballmer previewed the new version of Windows and outlined the company's strategy for putting information at the fingertips of personal computer users.

"Information at your fingertips is fundamentally a vision in which you let the personal computer become the first device people turn to to browse, gather and retrieve information in their office," Ballmer said.

That will require technology that lets personal computer users work together more, connect to other sources of data and handle "rich" information - voice and video.

Microsoft plans to do its bit to provide this kind of technology through Windows, Ballmer said. By the end of the year Microsoft hopes to release Windows NT, an advanced product targeting the high end of the word-processing market.