Sun strives to bring Linux to the desktop

Sun Microsystems has rolled out its first Linux-based desktop software and is working to secure deals with governments and...

Sun Microsystems has rolled out its first Linux-based desktop software and is working to secure deals with governments and businesses to deploy it, although a Sun executive insisted the company did not have rival Microsoft in its sights.

"First and foremost, the objective of the Java Desktop System [JDS] isn't to go after Microsoft," said Peder Ulander, Sun's director of marketing for desktop solutions.

Ulander was speaking at the SunNetwork Berlin conference, the company's first major conference in Europe, where the market for Linux-based desktop software is seen as much stronger than in the US.

Ulander explained how Java Desktop System's user interface was designed to mimic the Windows operating environment so users would immediately be able to navigate the application.

Where the "Start" button is on the Windows desktop, for example, JDS has a "Launch" button which serves the same purpose. The "My Computer" icon in Windows appears as a "This Computer" icon on JDS.

It's these similar usability features, application integration and interoperability with Windows that Sun says is the reason why JDS is the first really widely deployable Linux desktop software.

The version of JDS that launched this week is a preview version and is being offered at $50 per user to attract early adopters. The next version, due out early next year, will be priced at $100 per user and will include new features and Java development tools.

Future versions will include management tools to help customers with wide deployment. JDS is targeting task-oriented and transaction workers in both small and large companies.

The company's Java programming language is central to JDS' evolution. McNealy showed off a 3D Java program called "Looking glass" which will be included in upcoming version of JDS. The program allows users to move around the desktop and view items in 3D, with documents appearing to float in the air.

While Ulander declined to say how many developers are working on JDS, he did disclose that Sun has JDS teams in Beijing, Dublin, Hamburg, Germany, and Sun's headquarters in Santa Clara.

Asia is a ripe market for open-source software, as Sun's recent deal with China's China Standard Software demonstrates. At the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last month, Sun chief executive officer Scott McNealy announced an agreement with the Chinese government-backed group to roll out desktop software based on JDS to millions of  users in the country.

Ulander said the China deal is just the first in what Sun expects to be a series of government wins for its Linux-based desktop, adding that there is a huge digital divide in developing counties and those without technology cannot afford it.

Indeed, a handful of  developing countries have recently spurned Microsoft in favour of open source. IDC has predicted that Linux will be the fastest growing operating environment over the next five years, while Windows has hit a plateau with some 98% of the desktop operating system market.

Backed with support from major suppliers and popularity on college campuses, Linux will thrive, IDC said in a research report released in September.

However, the analyst firm predicted that Microsoft will not sit passively, but instead, "can be expected to compete vigorously, even using its huge installed base as a competitive tool to deflect Linux's ability to penetrate the industry".

Banking on the China deal's potential of rolling out tens of millions of Linux-based desktops, Sun could become the largest Linux company in the world, McNealy said.

By leading a desktop Linux push, however, it is difficult to say that Sun is not going after Microsoft

Scarlet Pruitt writes for IDG News Service

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