At Novell Inc.'s headquarters in Provo, employees like to tease the chief scientist, Drew Major, for his habit of bringing a portable computer to meetings and writing software code while others drone on.

The teasers notwithstanding, Major's habit is one that remains essential if Novell is to back away from the financial precipice, where until recently it has found itself isolated in an increasingly Microsoft-centric computing world.Major knows that Novell, which once dominated the market for office personal computer networking software but has lately seemed in danger of becoming technologically irrelevant, may now have its best opportunity in years. On Monday it announced the availability of a new version of its flagship product, NetWare, a month ahead of schedule.

The timing is crucial because just last month the Microsoft Corp. announced that its intended NetWare killer - Windows NT 5.0 - would not reach the market anytime soon, and analysts are saying the program may end up arriving next summer or even later, a year behind schedule.

Microsoft's slip, coming on the heels of a third-quarter earnings report by Novell that was better than expected, has buoyed Major's belief that the company has found a new lease on life and a new identity.

"We were a Microsoft wannabe," he said recently during an interview at the company's corporate campus in Provo. But now, he said, Novell understands that "we have to be who we are, and that is an independent maker of a specialized operating system."

Major, 48, has already seen both the mountaintop and the valley. One of the company's first three employees in 1982, he lived and worked through Novell's phenomenal growth period during the '80s and then stuck around through the bitter times since the early '90s, when Ray Noorda, the company's longtime chairman until 1994, began confronting Microsoft directly with a broad range of corporate software products - and failed.

Now Major, the leader of the company's once-demoralized engineering ranks, contends that Novell has found a way to once again thrive in Microsoft's long shadow. On a blackboard in a windowless conference room in the company's headquarters is a long list of new products designed to make it easier to use the Internet, which Major contends will give customers renewed reasons to buy Novell software.

There are already some hopeful signs. After cutting the work force by 18 percent last year, to 4,600 employees, the company reported a fiscal third-quarter profit of $27 million last month, compared with a $122 million loss in the quarter a year earlier. And test versions of NetWare 5.0, the new version of its mainstay product, have received accolades from trade-press reviewers.

Even better news is that a 15 percent growth in sales of the existing version of NetWare in the most recent quarter suggests that the computer market is interpreting the Windows NT 5.0 delay as a signal to renew its commitment to Novell, which lost its market share advantage over Microsoft last year in the business of providing software that powers networks of desk-top and central "server" computers.

Industry analysts are saying that Microsoft's technology snags, which they predict could delay the arrival of Windows NT 5.0 until next summer or later, will give Novell much-needed breathing room - and an opportunity to consolidate its hold over the 40 million Netware users.

"NetWare 5.0 is here and Microsoft is not," said Steven Dube, a Wall Street analyst at Wasserstein, Perella & Co. "That has become a major factor."

If there is a true turnaround, Eric Schmidt, the former Sun Microsystems technologist who replaced Robert Frankenberg as Novell's chief executive in April 1997, would no doubt receive and deserve much of the credit. But a corporate revival would be just as much the story of the renewed professional passion of Major, who remains the technological soul of Novell.

Inside the technical ranks of the company, Major still maintains a reputation as a software engineer who has long emphasized technical efficiency as the best way to achieve product performance - continuously striving to reduce delays between the network and the hard disk of individual computers.

"Drew is all about speed and performance," said Kent Prows, a Novell engineer. "His legacy is that NetWare now offers the fastest path between the wire and the disk."

While Microsoft's NT 5.0 has already ballooned to about 45 million lines of code because of Microsoft's effort to make the program all things to all users, NetWare is still less than a fourth that size. Industry engineers say the size advantage is almost certain to translate into a speed advantage.

That should help Major and his technical team carry out Schmidt's strategy - a plan that goes beyond improving NetWare's performance in office networks by trying to improve the performance of the entire Internet for corporate customers and Internet service providers. To supplement Major's team, Schmidt has been quietly recruiting new talent, much of it reflecting the aggressive, technology-first Silicon Valley engineering culture embodied by companies like Sun Microsystems.

Yet it is not a showdown with Microsoft that Novell is seeking so much as way to expand into the Internet market in ways that avoid such a head-on confrontation.

Schmidt said he still remembered the diplomatic tour of the industry he took soon after joining Novell and the courtesy call he made to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. "What should we do?" Schmidt recalls asking about Novell's travails.

The Microsoft executives were politely noncommittal, although later one of Microsoft's top technical leaders said of the meeting with Schmidt, "All I could think of was to give him a gun to shoot himself."

But lately, Microsoft seems to be taking Novell more seriously. Recently in private meetings, Microsoft's president, Steven Ballmer, has indicated that Novell is now one of the software giant's most closely watched competitors.

For Major, the issues remind him of the earlier battles that Novell fought - and lost - against Microsoft.

"There's a mindset there of killing everyone who's opposed to you," he said.

But this time, having learned the folly of confronting Microsoft directly, Major intends to use the vast expanse of the Internet to step over, under and around his giant rival.