Sun rising on the desktop

The struggle for the corporate desktop will enter a new phase in December when Sun’s forthcoming Linux desktop is released in New Zealand.

Computerworld took an early look at a beta version of the Java Desktop System. There were a few cosmetic and stability issues typical of prerelease software, but the system does have the potential to attract organisations disenchanted with Microsoft's "software assurance" licensing scheme or perhaps looking for alternatives to Windows.

Don't be fooled by the Java name; although Sun's J2SE is included, the Java Desktop System is much like any other Linux distro. In fact, it's built from the well-regarded SuSE Linux, a mainstream distribution that has also received corporate blessing from IBM.

Installation was easy. The YaST2 (Yet another Setup Tool) installer provided a sensible set of default applications, and handily included a mountpoint to my Windows drive at /windows/C. The Grub bootloader allows a quick selection of operating system at boot time, defaulting to the OS on the boot volume.

The essential ingredients of the Java Desktop System are the GNOME desktop, StarOffice application suite, Evolution mail client, and the Mozilla browser. Sun has chosen the Metacity window manager, which is both easy to use and reasonably intuitive for Windows users.

Sun has concentrated on ease of use, and providing a comfortable environment for Windows users. The desktop is configured with This Computer and Documents icons, which will be immediately familiar to those used to My Computer and My Documents. There's also a Network Places icon. The Evolution mail client and Mozilla browser have been renamed Web Browser and Mail and Calendar, and links put right at the top of the Start menu -- renamed Launch -- where they’ll be found quickly. A StarOffice link sits in the same place; not far away is a link to a clone of that other key productivity app, Minesweeper.

This system may be only partly Java, but it's absolutely Desktop. Almost all Linux distros ship with some version of Apache, but not this one. A browse through the installer’s package list shows the developers' restraint: the Java Desktop System generally offers only one version of a tool – links but not lynx, for example -- and the default install omits propellerhead favourites such as sudo that are really intended for administrators' use.

The Postfix mail server is installed, but is sensibly configured to only accept mail from the host machine. In fact, the only default service visible to the outside world is the CUPS printer service.

IT departments will be pleased that Sun has avoided the temptation to cram in as much free software as the installation CDs can hold. The only window managers on offer are Metacity and the minimalist fvwm2. While users might like to tinker with their machines, administrators prefer to keep configurations reasonably generic. GUI and command line administrator tools are provided, but require the root password to launch.

So what's missing? For one, the online help in this beta version was missing or incomplete, although the StarOffice help was detailed and useful, particularly in describing the differences with Microsoft Office.

We had expected more emphasis on Windows interoperability. Granted, the system comes with working versions of Samba and an office suite that generally works near-seamlessly with Microsoft Office documents, but we didn't find Wine installed, despite Sun telling us last year that the Windows compatibility software would be included. We did find a copy of Wine on SuSE's website that installed without difficulty, but Wine is not a trivial system for end users to configure and we believe it should be included in the default install. Wine doesn’t run all Windows apps, of course, so Sun may have decided it would rather avoid the hassle when a user finds a favourite Windows application won’t run under Wine.

Similarly, although Unix standards like NIS are present, there is no centralised way of logging on to a Windows domain or active directory.

The system works well and provides the essential tools most workers will need — a web browser, email client, office suite, and a user-friendly desktop environment. Companies which want a low-cost, productive package for generic desktop hardware will find a lot in the Java Desktop System to commend it.

Those who want to incorporate it into an existing Windows infrastructure or workflow may need to do a bit more planning, particularly if they use specialised applications. It’s plain though that Sun is positioning the system as a replacement for Windows desktops — Sun executives routinely say they’ll sell it for about half the per-seat cost of Windows — so we expect to see further efforts at producing a system that can be "dropped-in" to Windows networks with minimal configuration.

What does remain to be seen is the quality of the support, such as patching and updates, that Sun can provide to end users and IT departments.

The desktop basics, however, are there: judging from this pre-1.0 release, Sun has a desktop package that can be seriously considered by IT departments planning new rollouts. It marks a new battleground in the company’s attempts to challenge Microsoft’s iron grip on the desktop.

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