Sun launches own-branded Sparc laptop

Sun Microsystems Inc. has taken the wraps off a 64-bit UltraSparc-based laptop, the Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation, at the JavaOne show in San Francisco.

The laptop should be generally available this month and entry-level pricing begins at US$3,400, according to Rajesh Shakkarwar, senior director of workstations at Sun’s network systems group. The devices are manufactured by Tadpole Computer Inc. of Cupertino, California, and Taiwanese Nature Worldwide Technology Corp. Both companies have been producing UltraSparc-based notebooks for a number of years, but this is the first time Sun has rebadged their laptops under its own brand.

The Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation will come in several configurations, powered by a 550MHz or 650MHz UltraSparc IIi chip or a 1.2GHz UltraSparc IIIi chip, available with either a 15-inch or a 17-inch TFT (thin-film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display) screen, according to Sun’s Web site. It will come with up to 2G-bytes of DDR (double data rate) RAM, 512M bytes of RAM and a 40G-byte disk drive. The laptop also includes entry 2-D graphics and 802.11b wireless networking.

The move was driven by customer requests, according to Shakkarwar. Sun workstations users want to be able to access their Sparc-based applications in the field, not just from inside the confines of their data centers, he said.

Shakkarwar gave the example of companies involved in oil and gas exploration that are engaged in resource simulation to ascertain where on the ocean floor they should be drilling. “They now want to tweak those simulations while they’re on the rig” and see what happens to the simulations, he said. “They have to have a mobile platform on the rig that can run Sparc-based binaries.”

Sun has the lion’s share of the traditional Risc-based workstation market with a 70 percent market share and an installed base of one million machines, according to Shakkarwar. However, “it’s a stable, mature market and doesn’t have growth,” he said. “It’s a flat market.”

“The problem Sun faces is a lot of users are migrating to Intel-based workstations,” said Lloyd Cohen, director of worldwide market analysis for IDC’s global enterprise server solutions program. “One of the hottest areas is mobile workstations.” He dubbed Sun’s laptop announcement a “wise thing to do.” If Sun is able to persuade any of its installed workstation base to adopt the Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation, that would be a way to hold back the move away from Sparc to x86, he added.

While Sun today has zero share in the rapidly growing x86-based personal workstation arena, Shakkarwar said, the company is targeting that market with its Opteron-based Ultra 20 Workstation, which is aimed at developers and was also announced at JavaOne. If customers sign up for a minimum three-year contract, including service and support, they can obtain the workstation when it ships in July for a monthly fee of $29.95, he added. The list price without support is $895.

The vendor made the Ultra 3 Mobile Workstation laptop and Ultra 20 Workstation announcements at the keynote address on the first day of the JavaOne conference on Monday, but they got lost amid all the other news. Sun chose not to demonstrate the machines during the address, Shakkarwar said.

On its Web site, Sun positioned the laptop as providing performance and functionality equal to what’s currently offered by a Sun Blade workstation.

The laptop comes preloaded with Sun’s Solaris 10 operating system and will ship with the company’s Java Desktop System preinstalled. Customers can opt for either StarOffice 7.0 or the GNOME 2.0 office software suite to also be included.

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