Resellers can forget about generating even a dollar of revenue from PC and software sales if Sun Microsystems' vision of the future is realised.
In a powerful vote of confidence in the thin-client computing architecture proposed by vendors such as Citrix, Sun last week unveiled its twist on the concept with a device it touts as the thinnest of all thin clients. Sun claims the device, which it will lease to customers for as little as $US10 a month, will see the end of desktop upgrades and maintenance costs.
If that's not an upsetting enough vision of the future for PC resellers, Sun is also giving away its StarOffice desktop productivity software for nix. Claiming that free software is the way of the future, Sun is aiming to make its money by charging for support of its Microsoft Office alternative.
This, of course, is not the first time that Sun has spoken of a vision where the PC is made obsolete and replaced by appliance-like devices that don't need to be managed or upgraded and that work every time. However, with its new Sun Ray desktop it claims to have taken the thin-client concept to its "logical extreme".
Unlike other thin clients which are based on "thin operating systems" like Windows CE or Java OS, the Sun Ray has no operating system at all with all system code residing back on the server.
"What makes the Sun Ray so exciting is how boring it is. There is nothing here, there is no OS," said Sun president and chief operating officer Ed Zander.
Instead the proprietary protocols that pass screen information to the thin clients have been hard coded into the box.
"You never have to upgrade again," said Zander. "The same box that was bought in 1999 will still be painting pixels in 2010.
"We said 17 years ago that the network is the computer, today we're really delivering on that."
There is a catch. Unlike protocols like Citrix ICA and X-Windows, which have been designed to soak up very little bandwidth, the Sun Ray technology is a bandwidth hog.
Users will need a dedicated 10Mbps link from the server to the desktop and if the user wants full multimedia they will require a 100Mbps Fast Ethernet connection. Today, this limits the applicability of the Sun Ray technology to local area networks and work groups.
As such, Sun is initially targeting verticals like education and government which are likely to find the low up-front and ongoing maintenance costs attractive. It also sees the Sun Ray as being well suited to certain application environments like ERP and customer management systems.
However, Sun is betting that the availability of bandwidth is going to expand just as Moore's Law has seen the power of microprocessors expand.
"Dream a little bit because as soon as you have the bandwidth every home can have easy access to their own personal Web top and will be able to access it from anywhere," said Zander.
Sun has also introduced its "hot desk" technology into the Sun Ray, whereby a user's identity is stored on a smart card and their session follows them round to whichever terminal they insert their smart card into.
The Sun Ray appliances sell for $US499 or can be leased from Sun for as little as $US10 a month.
To make the Sun Ray a very inexpensive up-front solution, Sun is giving away its recently acquired StarOffice suite of desktop productivity applications.
"Users can finally avoid that Microsoft tax on every desktop," said Zander.
StarOffice founder Marco Boeries claimed that the economics of software sales were shifting dramatically towards the free model and that if traditional resellers who relied on their Microsoft Office margin did not change their models they would not be around very far into the future.
Sun expands services reach
Sun is boosting its professional services business with the launch of its Dot Com consulting business. The charter of the newly formed services group is to enable customers to use Sun technologies to build scalable and reliable architectures that let companies run their businesses online.
While many Sun integrators will no doubt have reservations about the expansion of Sun's services capabilities, Sun claimed that the new group would be channel friendly. It is looking to work very closely with business consulting firms like KPMG, PriceWaterhouse and so on and expected to partner with all manner of Sun services partners.
"We can't be all things to all people, we need our partners to provide a complete solutions," a Sun official said. "We certainly expect to create more business for the channel than we take away."