Sun details plans to sell Linux desktops

Ending weeks of speculation, Sun Microsystems Inc. on Wednesday unveiled its plans to offer desktop computers running the Linux operating system in a bid to undercut archrival Microsoft Corp. in one of the software giant's key markets.

Sun will target the machines initially at businesses, governments and schools for use in call centers, retail outlets, banks, classrooms and other settings where a fully-fledged PC isn't needed, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's executive vice president of software, who showed one of the systems for the first time here at the start of the SunNetwork conference. The systems are being developed at Sun under the name Project Mad Hatter.

Due out some time next year, the systems will run open source programs including Linux, the Mozilla Web browser, the OpenOffice productivity suite, and Evolution, an open source e-mail program. This should make them less expensive to purchase and maintain for users, according to Sun. They will also use Java smart cards, allowing users to securely log into any available machine in an office or classroom and load their personal settings onto that system.

"We think we can give you a price that's half the cost (of a Windows PC) at acquisition," said Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman, president and chief executive, in his speech at the start of the show. Operational costs will also be lower, he said, in part because users "won't have to do all those upgrades for security patches."

He characterized the initial market for the machines as "compelling, if limited."

The desktops will also ship with the open-source WINE (Windows Emulator) program, allowing them to run Windows applications, said Tony Siress, senior director of marketing for Sun's desktop software division. They will also include the popular Samba program, providing access to networked file and print services.

While Sun executives positioned the systems as a way to free users from the grip of Microsoft's desktop monopoly, one analyst wondered why businesses would buy the systems from Sun, rather than buying generic "white box" systems and loading the open-source software onto the machines themselves.

"Sun's value-add appears to come from the smart card," said Pia Rieppo, a principal analyst for the workstation market with Gartner Inc. "They say they can offer secure systems that allow users to carry their identity around with them. But I'm not sure if security will be enough to make companies buy a PC from Sun."

Other efforts to promote Linux on the desktop have failed, she noted, but Sun apparently thinks that open source desktop products have matured to a point where they are ready for widespread use, she said. Sun will likely offer the systems as part of broader packages that also include its servers and other products, she said.

The systems will carry the Sun logo but Sun will outsource their manufacturing, Schwartz said. In fact, "they'll never see the inside of a Sun factory," he said. Sun hopes to use some of the same manufacturers that build its recently-launched Linux LX50 server, other officials said. Sun will "talk to the same suppliers Dell talks to" for components, said Schwartz.

The system shown here was a tower PC in Sun's familiar mauve coloring, with a separate smart card reader attached. In the demonstration here, when Schwartz pushed his smart card into the reader he was greeted with a screen for password entry, and then presented with his own wallpaper and other desktop settings.

A typical package will include 100 of the Linux PCs along with a small server running Sun's portal and identity server software, Schwartz said. For customers who purchase more machines, Sun will increase the size of the server accordingly, which could mean using a Sun Linux server or a Solaris server, according to Jack O'Brien, group marketing manager of Sun's Linux business group.

The systems on average will cost companies US$49 per month per user, which compares to about $170 per user per month for a typical Windows PC, according to Schwartz. Over a period of 5 years users will end up paying 30 percent of the amount they pay for Windows PCs, he said.

"If we can show up with a good enough desktop and a good enough set of applications for a certain tier of users, you're going to have the opportunity to save a bit of money," Schwartz said.

Sun doesn't expect to get such good deals from its component suppliers as a high-volume manufacturer like Dell, Schwartz said. But it expects to make big savings by using only open source software. The machines will run "Sun Linux," a similar version to that used on its LX50 server, which in turn was derived from the distribution from Red Hat Inc.

Sun isn't the first vendor to make a play on the desktop with Linux, though other efforts have largely failed. Dell offered Linux PCs for a while, but pulled the plug citing lack of interest. And one or two notable Linux desktop players, such as Eazel Inc., have fallen by the wayside.

Sun already offers a stripped down desktop computer called SunRay. Those systems access programs from a server rather than locally, however, and have little storage and processing power. Typically, those systems also require a higher-bandwidth network connection to access server-based applications. The Linux PCs unveiled Wednesday will work when they are unplugged from a network, Schwartz said.

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James Niccolai

Computerworld
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