SUN NETWORK : Sun to shed light on desktop Linux plans

Sun Microsystems Inc. is expected to unveil a Frankenstein-like desktop Linux strategy this week, combining various software elements developed in-house or by open-source community projects and third-party vendors.

Sun’s desktop Linux play, which will be spelled out Wednesday at the start of its SunNetwork conference here, marks another shift for the Santa Clara, California, company as its battles industry leader Microsoft Corp. for the hearts and minds of corporate users.

Sun already has turned to Linux to help it compete in the low-end server market, where systems based on its proprietary Solaris operating system tend to be too expensive to compete. It unveiled a Sun-branded version of Linux last month at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, along with the dual-processor Sun LX50 server, which runs on Intel Corp. processors and is designed for jobs like file and print serving.

But Sun executives say more is to come. Scott McNealy, its chairman, president and chief executive officer, said during the LX50 server launch to “stay tuned” for news about a desktop Linux offering. Since then Sun executives have hinted at the company’s plans in interviews leading up to the SunNetwork show, but have declined to offer specifics.

It’s still not clear, for example, if its Linux play will be for desktop computers or more powerful workstation clients. But what does appear certain is that its target audience, at least initially, is in the workplace and not the home.

“The audience for Linux on the desktop really is the IT manager,” said John Fowler, chief technology officer of Sun’s software division, in an interview with journalists last month.

Workers who use PCs for special-purpose tasks, and who do most of their work on custom-designed software, have use for Linux-based desktop environments, according to IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. Possible target markets include the finance industry, where staff often use single-purpose machines to enter financial data.

“That’s an opportunity Sun certainly could exploit,” he said. Systems running Linux aren’t very useful for those workers who rely on the widely-used Microsoft Office software suite, Kusnetzky said. While some alternatives to Office do run on Linux, “any incompatibility, at any level, is unacceptable,” he said.

Sun has revealed that its Linux distribution for servers was based almost entirely on the version of the open source operating system developed by Red Hat Inc. Sun did some tuning to the operating system to make it run best with its hardware and software.

A similar strategy is expected with its desktop offering. Company executives have hinted at a Sun Linux desktop distribution that combines existing software from the open source community, such as the GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) desktop interface, the Mozilla Web browser and the desktop office productivity software package OpenOffice, also available from Sun as StarOffice.

“Mozilla is really functionally an extremely (credible) alternative (to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer),” Fowler said last month during the meeting with reporters. Applauding achievements around the latest release of OpenOffice 1.0, he said the product finally does a good job with Windows compatibility.

Sun could also borrow from other companies that aim to drive Linux desktop adoption in the enterprise, such as Ximian Inc. The Boston-based software company has developed a product called the Ximian Connector for Microsoft Exchange, which allows Linux desktops to access data stored on Microsoft Exchange servers, such as group calendars and e-mail. Ximian also makes an e-mail client for Linux, an application lacking from StarOffice which would help to round out the desktop suite.

Additionally, Sun technologies designed for its Solaris operating system could come in handy as it delivers on its plans for desktop Linux, Kusnetzky said. They include PC Launcher and PC File Viewer, applications that make it possible to view and edit PC files from a Unix system. Sun has also developed a technology known as WABI (Windows Application Binary Interface), designed to allow Windows applications to work on Intel-based Solaris servers as well as Solaris SPARC servers.

Unseating Microsoft from its dominant position on the desktop is not likely to happen any time soon, Kusnetzky said. According to IDC research, Linux has gained desktop market share every year since 1995, when IDC began tracking such data. Still, after six years it controls only about a 1.7 percent share of the client operating system shipments.

Much of that slow client growth may be due to the fact that Windows is also a popular pick for departmental servers that process the basic tasks required by corporate desktop users. To that end, enterprise customers typically employed Windows desktops.

“I think they face quite a task to convince people to put a Sun desktop in when it may not collaborate with Windows work-group servers as well as a Windows system could have,” Kusnetzky said.