Ending weeks of speculation, Sun Microsystems has unveiled its plans to offer desktop computers running the Linux operating system in a bid to undercut arch-rival Microsoft in one of the software giant's key markets.
Sun will target the machines initially at businesses, governments and schools for use in call centres, retail banks, classrooms and other settings where the full functionality of a PC isn't needed, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's executive vice president of software, who showed one of the systems for the first time here at the start of the SunNetwork conference. The systems are being developed at Sun under the name Project Mad Hatter.
Due out sometime next year, the systems will run open-source programs including Linux, the Mozilla Web browser, the OpenOffice productivity suite, and Evolution, an open-source e-mail program. This should make them less expensive to purchase and maintain for users, according to Sun. They will also use Java smart cards, allowing users to securely log into any available machine in an office or classroom and load onto the machine their personal settings.
"If we can show up with a good enough desktop and a good enough set of applications for a certain tier of users, you're going to have the opportunity to save a bit of money," Schwartz said.
While Sun executives positioned the systems as a way to free users from the grip of Microsoft's desktop monopoly, one analyst wondered why businesses would buy the systems from Sun, rather than buying white-box systems and loading the open-source software onto the machines themselves.
"Sun's value-add appears to come from the smart card," said Pia Rieppo, a principal analyst for the workstation market with market analyst Gartner. "They say they can offer secure systems that allow users to carry their identity around with them. But I'm not sure if security will be enough to make companies buy a PC from Sun."
Other efforts to promote Linux on the desktop have failed, she noted, but Sun apparently thinks that open-source desktop products have matured to a point where they are ready for widespread use, she said. Sun is likely to offer the systems as part of broader, complete packages including servers and other products.
The systems will carry the Sun logo but Sun will outsource their manufacturing, Schwartz said. In fact, "they'll never see the inside of a Sun factory", he said. The company will "talk to the same suppliers Dell talks to" for the components.
A typical package will include 100 of the Linux PCs along with a small server running Sun's portal and identity server software, Schwartz said. The systems on average will cost companies $US49 per month per user, which compares to about $170 per user per month for a typical Windows PC, according to Schwartz. Over a period of five years users will end up paying 30 per cent of the amount they pay for Windows PCs, he said.
Sun doesn't expect to get such good deals from its component suppliers as a high-volume manufacturer like Dell, Schwartz said, but it expects to make big savings by using only open-source software.
Sun isn't the first vendor to make a play on the desktop with Linux. In fact, Dell itself offered Linux PCs for a while, but pulled the plug, citing lack of interest.
Sun already offers a stripped-down desktop computer called SunRay. Those systems access programs from a server rather than running them locally, however, and have little storage and processing power. The Linux PCs unveiled today will work when they are unplugged from a network, Schwartz said.