Sun's big opportunity

There's a sorry irony in the timing of Sun's long-awaited release of the Java Desktop System (JDS). As Sun was showing JDS to customers in Auckland and Wellington, the residue of Sun's relationship with former New Zealand agent SolNet was being mopped up in the capital.

There’s a sorry irony in the timing of Sun’s long-awaited release of the Java Desktop System (JDS). As Sun was showing JDS to customers in Auckland and Wellington, the residue of Sun’s relationship with former New Zealand agent SolNet was being mopped up in the capital.

Unfortunately for SolNet, JDS stands a good chance of being the first Sun product to reach a mass market. But SolNet will be missing out on the spoils.

Monetary spoils might be overstating things a bit. JDS, after all, is not a high-cost item. Until June, it will sell for $90 per user (then $180), a price which hardly holds much profit for anyone in the supply chain. But if it catches on –- which the price is calculated to encourage –- it will serve as a sleeper product that will get the company in the door with many customers who so far haven’t seen any reason to buy from Sun.

What is it? Simply, it’s Scott McNealy’s Microsoft killer. McNealy, the founder and boss of Sun, is famously rude about Microsoft and its products –- he routinely refers to Windows as a fur ball –- and JDS is his attempt at liberating the masses from the tyranny of his nemesis, Bill Gates.

The company first outlined plans for a desktop system that would take on Windows and Microsoft Office in 2002, calling it Mad Hatter. McNealy believed he could do so for about half the cost of a Windows-based PC. A year later, the plan changed to creation of a software bundle aimed a corporate desktops, with the present name.

What’s in it? Plenty.

The OS is the SuSE Linux distribution, which Sun’s regional software boss, Laurie Wong, says is a better desktop proposition than Red Hat. Bundled with it are the Mozilla browser, Evolution email client and GAIM instant messenger. The jewel in the Java desktop crown, however, is StarOffice 7, Sun’s answer to MS Office, which reads MS Office documents. There’s also project management software and various other bits and pieces.

Does it measure up? Damned near, according to a reviewer at Computerworld US stablemate InfoWorld. On the basis of his JDS testing, PJ Connolly is moved to say Linux is almost ready for prime time. Compared with Windows, however, it is harder to manage; and compared with Apple’s latest GUI, it’s not quite as pretty. (But wait, says Sun: we’re working on a 3D GUI. While not due for release from the lab for another year or so, demonstrations at presentations in Auckland and Wellington late last month were impressive –- although one wonders what the point is, other than to give hardware makers something to strive for.)

Connolly compared JDS with other Linux desktops and concludes it does have an edge, through the effort Sun has put in to make the various components work together. And he says the company intends to improve JDS’s manageability in a further release later in the year.

Sun will be selling JDS through its recently widened local channel, which so far doesn’t include retailers. With Dick Smith Electronics selling a $1500 OS-less notebook since the start of the month, retail sales might be an opportunity Sun wants to explore.

Its channel has been transformed since SolNet was sacked as agent last year, with Computerland, Eagle Technology and Open Systems Specialists, among others, becoming more active. Sun’s also selling direct.

The SolNet saga is intriguing –- but baffling -– for anyone who isn’t a finance whizz. Sun gave “financial reasons” as its explanation for abruptly ending a 10-year relationship, and SolNet has repeatedly said the debt it owed Sun was no more than was normal between customer and supplier. However, creditors meeting in Wellington last week as the former Sun agency is liquidated learned of a $16.5 million shortfall. SolNet Solutions, meanwhile, which arose from the Sun agency’s ashes, trades on.

The Java Desktop System, and the opportunity it presents for those seeking a Microsoft antidote, I can understand. But high finance is beyond me.

  • Disclosure of interest: Computerworld publisher IDG Communications is a creditor of S Resources, the new name of SolNet Ltd.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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