Java Desktop System: First Impressions on Sun’s Linux

Sun Microsystems is introducing its Linux distribution, Sun Linux, a part of the Mad Hatter project, to the general public today. Sun Linux is targeting the Enterprise market and at a very low price. OSNews had a sneak peak at Sun Linux last Friday at Sun’s offices and here is what we saw there.Sun Linux is the company’s new weapon against Microsoft’s offerings, and, as we mentioned before, is targeting the Enterprise, but also the Government and Education markets. Sun was clear that this is not a consumer-level product, but a way to offer a cheap alternative to their existing and new customers who want cheaper desktops/workstations but still be able to retain the Sun warranty and services, plus the ability to have perfect integration and interoperability with the back-end application and other servers, which would run Solaris.

The “proper” name of Sun Linux is “Java Desktop System” (which can be confusing as Sun is branding everything as “%java%” lately, exactly the same way Microsoft did with their “.NET”). The development/high-end version of Java Desktop System (JDS) is called “Java Enterprise System”.

The distribution is based on SuSE 8.2 and not on Red Hat Linux as it was originally said about a year ago. Yast2 and other SuSE/administrative utilities are only accessible via the command line and not from the graphical menu system. The desktop is based on Gnome 2.2, though Sun’s engineers have tweaked it quite a bit. The menu layout is different from what you normally get with a stock Gnome or Red Hat installation, and is actually pretty close to the Win9x/ME model.

Click for a larger version Sun has worked on its own UI theme and it’s filled with Sun’s corporate colors. While a unique theme from Sun for its Linux is welcome, this theme (especially the Metacity part) does not cut it by modern standards. Usability aside, it is not particularly attractive theme. For the sake of differentiation, Sun could have put a bit more artistic innovation there. What’s more, Sun is planning on using this exact same desktop design for the upcoming Solaris version too (which is a move that actually makes sense strategically-speaking).

Sun’s Java is of course pre-installed and Star Office 7 too. We saw a development version of SO7, and it looks much cleaner interface-wise, plus it has new abilities regarding macros, better interoperability with MS Office and its file formats, can save to PocketPC’s Office formats, better PDF capabilities, etc. Included there is also the Gnome PDA syncing application, but no way to sync with a mobile phone via Bluetooth or otherwise.

Some other applications included are Ximian’s Evolution, Mozilla, enhanced Samba and Nautilus, and ability to run KDE/Qt applications (however the ability to run KDE standalone is not included). The desktop has a “This Computer” icon which gets you to the “root” of Nautilus’ window which includes the / and home folders, the Applications, Preferences and the newly introduced “My Documents” folder.

Sun is scheduling quarterly releases with upgrades to this system for its customers, while price varies from $50 to $100 for each copy. Sun is selling the software bundled with PC hardware too, either Sun branded, or via some PC OEM partners.

One of the highlights of the presentation we attended was Looking Glass 2, which is a Java system that offers 3D capabilities to the 2D desktop, pretty much like Apple’s QuartzExtreme. The application is interesting to look at and while flashy (you can zoom windows, change perspective to them etc), is not of much use at the moment, as it runs on top of X and Gnome “as a third party application” and it is not integrated to the X server directly, neither does it take into account the Gnome desktop.

Sun is hopeful that the new product will make it to the Enterprise, and even more helpful that it will go well oversees, as other countries are more receptive of alternative technologies, especially when these are non-Microsoft.

So the new theme at Sun is: Solaris on the back-end, Sun Linux for the front-end desktop/workstations. As for my own personal observation, I see Solaris being replaced with Linux over time. Sun, of course, will be still support Solaris for the years to come (“we have some contracts where we are to support Solaris for 30 years in the future”, we were told), but that doesn’t mean that Sun won’t move to replace their UNIX OS with Linux. At the moment, Solaris has algorithms and optimizations that make it scale incredibly well, much better than any other OS out there. But as Linux is getting more mature and if Sun engineers choose to work on moving these optimizations to Linux (currently they are not), there will be no reason to keep develop two –for all intents and purposes– identical products. In the long run, it wouldn’t make sense business-wise.

For more information read NewsForge‘s report on Java Desktop System,‘s and eWEEK‘s.


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