Sun flies desktop Linux kite

What are Sun's chances of successfully selling a Linux bundle on the corporate desktop?

Fair to good, suggest users and analysts, who cite price advantages, "dissonance" from Microsoft's Software Assurance licensing scheme and a less proprietary desktop environment as elements in its favour.

Sun's California-based desktop solutions marketing director, Tony Siress, swooped in earlier in the month to talk to most of a dozen customers here about the company's planned "Linux desktop", and claimed an enthusiastic response.

In May or June next year Sun will ship desktop computers running Linux, the open source Mozilla web browser, email program Evolution and Sun's StarOffice application suite. The desktops, being created under "Project Mad Hatter", will also ship with the open source WINE emulator program, allowing them to run Windows applications, and Samba, providing access to networked file and print services. They will also use Java smart cards, allowing users to securely log into any available machine in an office or classroom and load their personal settings.

"We think we can give you a price that's half the cost [of a Windows PC] at acquisition," said Sun chief executive Scott McNealy announcing the product.

For sure, Sun is not to first to try the crack the Linux corporate desktop market.

Dell, a close partner of Red Hat, stopped selling individual PCs with Red Hat Linux preloaded, citing lack of demand for the machines. Meanwhile, Dick Smith in this country has begun selling a Terminator brand running Mandrake Linux, Open-Office and other software.

Local organisations are encouraging though not ecstatic.

At this stage there no interest in the Linux stack from the Ministry of Social Development, says IT director Neil Miranda, though that may change in the future. MSD met Siress but spoke mainly about its existing Sun investments. Miranda can see the value in the product for other large enterprises but at this stage, for example, can't see sufficient cost differential between Linux and Solaris or HP-UX.

University of Auckland enterprise architecture manager Tim Chaffe says the institution has in the past discussed StarOffice with Sun and admits to an interest. He could envisage Linux desktops in labs, perhaps, but not yet in the hands of average users. Windows has a range of functionality not yet available in Linux, he says, and document compatibility remains an issue. But if Linux continues to grow in use and functionality, it will probably come down to a cost equation, he says.

Others say the technical side of such projects is not where the difficulty lies, but the training and migration of people to new systems.

Gartner analyst Daniel McHugh agrees with the interoperability and functionality arguments, and says the Linux desktop sounds like a tough sell. It will involve a fair amount of upfront cost to change, and will be more to do with business than technology. However, Sun has "easy market share" in the enterprise, where less complexity is needed.

The Sydney-based McHugh says advantages Microsoft has include its developer base and "rich SME channel". Sun is reportedly gearing up for a big channel push across the ditch for StarOffice, focusing on choice of platform as much as choice of office application suite.

Siress notes that Gartner gives StarOffice a better than 50% chance of gaining a 10% share of the desktop office suite market by the end of 2004.

McHugh says this likelihood "certainly" applies locally, the drivers being price, "dissonance" to Software Assurance and users actively looking for alternatives. The open source argument helps but to a lesser extent, he believes.

Support for open source software will be key to getting the corporate nod, most people we spoke to agree. All-inclusive pricing, yet to be decided, will be based on an annual or quarterly basis.

One irony in the whole debate is that StarOffice was originally going to be given away to customers, but companies couldn't accept that.

"Corporates don't want free software," says Siress.

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