Sun extends network reach to enterprise desktop

SAN FRANCISCO — When Scott McNealy followed an eight-piece percussion band on stage for his keynote at the SunNetwork conference, he said his company was “”banging the same old drum – the network is still the computer,”” but that network includes the enterprise desktop.

Sun Microsystems Inc. CEO McNealy announced an initiative that would sell bundles of more than 100 Linux-based client machines with a server.

An OEM hasn’t been contracted to produce the machines, though McNealy said several have expressed interest. Sun representatives couldn’t confirm much in the way of specifications, other than that they would be similar to garden variety sub-$1,000 PCs with an emphasis on RAM over processing power. The packages should be ready to ship in the first quarter of next year, Sun said.

The company also offered few pricing details, except to say the acquisition cost would be about one-half and the continuing costs about one-third of a comparable PC-based system.The computers will feature a JavaCard authentication system and open source applications like Star Office. The clients would rely on the server for identity, messaging and portal functions.

But engineers, artists and content creators shouldn’t expect a Sun white box – or light-purple box, McNealy joked – anytime soon. “”We’re not targeting the general purpose user,”” McNealy said.

Sun is after the “”fixed function job”” market, said executive vice-president of software Jonathan Schwartz. This includes order entry, call centre and financial services.

“”If you spend most of your life in front of a browser, you’re our target demo,”” said Schwartz. “”Are we going to ship a desktop PC? No. The world has enough of those.””

While Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison’s similar thin-client computing vision of four years ago – and Sun’s own JavaStation initiative that preceded it – fell flat, Schwartz thinks the time is right. There’s a growing open source movement, a demand for alternatives to Microsoft’s hegemony on the desktop and pressure on budgets for lower continuing costs, he said.

Schwartz insisted the risk is minimal to Sun. There’s no factory to build the machines, no relationship with Microsoft at risk, and low cost of entry. “”It’s all upside,”” he said.

It’s part of Sun’s play to be an end-to-end supplier, from data centre to desktop. Schwartz said the Sun advantage is in the delivery of a complete, integrated solution. A company’s phone system doesn’t require integrators – the installer hooks it up. Why should computer systems be different?

McNealy said computer engineers “”are the type that would pay extra for a bicycle to have it delivered unassembled, and think their customers would, too . . . there is no automobile integration industry. You get a car.””

“”If this really got off the ground, it could really do damage to Microsoft,”” said Bill Moran, research director with D. H. Brown and Associates. But he worried that that’s the real motivation behind the pitch.

“”They say they’re being driven by the user. I hope so,”” Moran said.

Moran sees a space for the Linux desktop alongside the niche for the company’s Sun Ray “”stateless”” computer – essentially a dumb terminal. The dumb terminal market has a long history of success, and “”I don’t think that niche is going away,”” he said.

While it’s ideal for some processes – it’s cheap and doesn’t introduce the complexity of a PC – some applications demand some computing power on the client end, like a bank’s customer service front end.

But Moran said he isn’t completely sold on Sun’s pitch.

“”I’m skeptical that they can deliver a general purpose PC,”” he said. Moreover, there are some application issues. He noted that when PC networks replaced the mainframe some years ago, many operations clung to the older technology of its PROFS calendaring functionality – functionality that this package won’t feature.

McNealy said calendaring “”isn’t a showstopper”” in target industries like financial services and call centres. Moran called that ducking the question.

He also questioned the compatibility of Star Office with legacy Windows applications, having looked into running it in his own company’s office. When presentation files and documents don’t cross over well from the original format, it becomes an end-user issue with the attendant administrative time and hand-holding. “”Those are nasty issues.””


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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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