May 21, 2004

First look: Sun Java Desktop System Release 2

Author: Jem Matzan

Imagine for a moment that Windows XP came with Office XP Professional and Visual Studio .NET preinstalled with it. Imagine it was significantly more secure and easier to use. Imagine that it cost only $50 for all of that software. Sun's new Java Desktop System Release 2 is like the bizarro world equivalent of that kind of Microsoft software package. It's in the same league, except it doesn't use Microsoft technologies. If only it actually worked.

JDS is based on GNU/Linux, with proprietary add-ons for system management; you have StarOffice 7 and Evolution 1.45 instead of Office XP; and you have Java Studio Standard (formerly known as Sun ONE Studio) instead of Visual Studio .NET.

The operating system comes on three discs, and it's basically a modified version of SUSE Linux 8.1 with most of the packages removed. There are also three source code CDs, three CDs full of development tools, a documentation CD and a disc for the system management utilities. Only the operating system and some of its associated software packages are installed by default. If you want the system management utilities and development tools they must be installed afterward.


Four out of four computers agree: Sun Java Desktop System 2 doesn't work on anything remotely resembling a modern machine. I started out with my standard test system, an Athlon 64 3200+, Asus K8V Deluxe, Western Digital IDE and SATA hard drives (one of each), ATI Radeon 9800 Pro AIW 128MB, 1024MB Corsair RAM (TwinX LL kit), Sony DVD-ROM, and a Samsung Syncmaster 753DF 17-inch monitor. The software would boot and bring me to the LILO screen, but none of the graphical installation options (standard installation, manual installation, ACPI disabled, safe mode) would work. The display would go dark even though the hard drive and DVD drive were still running -- apparently the video mode was improperly configured. I tried all three screen resolution settings, eventually resorting to using the text mode installer. When I finally got to the YaST utility in text mode I got an error message which read, "Not enough disk space even for a minimal installation!" Although the brand new, never used 80GB IDE hard drive was properly recognized and YaST created partitions for it, somehow it didn't think that there was any free space to install the software to.

I got the same results with a Maxtor 80GB hard drive, so I knew it wasn't the drive at fault. The SATA drive was not recognized at all. I tried switching to my P4 Prescott setup, which used all of the same parts except for the CPU (Intel P4 3.2E) and motherboard (Intel D875PBZLK), but again there was no change.

I began to suspect bad installation media, but I wasn't out of computers yet. I hooked up a new system I recently built for a budget-minded friend -- Asus Terminator barebones with an Athlon XP 1900+, 256MB PC2700, and an old 6GB WD hard drive. Same results as with the other systems -- JDS2 wouldn't install because of some problem recognizing hard drive space.

The last resort was my Dell Inspiron 3800 laptop system, built in early 2001. Amazingly the graphical installer worked well and YaST didn't have the problems that it did before. The software installed without a hitch. The problem? It wouldn't start after that. It would begin the startup process and when it was about halfway done it would begin the shutdown process and then the system would power off. I could start in Safe Mode but none of the programs would run when I got to the desktop.

Restricted license

Sun JDS Release 2 is the most heavily restrictive software package I have ever seen. Sun takes the heavyweight championship belt for the worst software license ever to have crossed my desk. There are so many special case restriction provisions in the license that it needed an extra booklet of amendments to tack on more rights revocation clauses -- a total of seven pages full of unusually complex and convoluted legalese. The licensing is worse than anything I've seen come out of Redmond -- or anywhere else -- thus far. If Microsoft's EULA says, "you can't do anything with this software," Sun's JDS license says, "I'll tell you every single thing you can't do, and that means everything, including unlikely possibilities, and while we're at it here is a list of unreasonable demands and obligations for you. And get me another beer while you're up."

To begin with, the license is deceptive. It is worded initially in such a way as to make you believe that it governs the entire operating environment -- everything on the CDs. Further in there is a quick phrase that states that Sun's binary code license only governs the included software that is not already under another license. That leaves a staggeringly small portion of the operating environment under the governance of Sun's license: the Java Desktop System Configuration Manager and the Sun Control Station. Everything else falls only under the control and jurisdiction of its governing license (mostly the GNU GPL). But if you didn't know beforehand that GNU/Linux was under the GPL, you would have no way of knowing that by looking at Sun's license. All of the "other" licenses that the software falls under are buried two directories deep on the first disc in a file called THIRDPARTYLICENSEREADME. Short of breaking the law, there is nothing more that Sun could have done to obscure the fact that JDS2 is mostly Free Software.

I'm not going to list all of the restrictions -- it would take up way too much space -- but I will say that the wording of the license is unusually complex. You'll definitely want your legal department to pore over this material before you consider making a buying recommendation on it.

If you're considering buying this for your personal use and your rights are important to you, Java Desktop System 2 is not for you. If you don't care about software licensing and want a good operating system and other tools for developing Java software, JDS2 is a possibility for you, hardware permitting.

No paper documentation is included with the software, but there is a documentation CD which contains the same basic things you can find on


Sun gladly grants licensees 60 days of the world's worst installation support over the phone or online through email and a support database. Your license fee actually covers software maintenance for a term of one year, so you're entitled to updates, patches, and bug fixes for as long as you maintain your contract with Sun.

Sun also offers indemnification contracts against patent, trade secret, and copyright infringement claims. This means that if SCO sues you for imaginary IP violations in the Linux kernel, Sun will cover you for up to $2 million if you purchase this contract.

I called the installation support number because I had an unusually difficult time installing the software. Based on the heavy Scottish accent, the voice menu that answered the 800 number seemed like it was made for the U.K. instead of the U.S., but in double-checking the number I definitely had the right one. Even the ring tone between the menu messages was the double beep found primarily in the United Kingdom. Instead of transferring me to a support agent, I was required to leave my name, number, a description of the nature of my call, and a good time to call me back.

While waiting for my return call I visited the support Web site listed on the Support Entitlement Certificate. It's little more than the usual array of information that is totally useless to someone who actually needs help with malfunctioning software. I had to register with the site if I wanted email support, giving my name and all kinds of personal information about myself, then type in my system stats and a description of the problem. I was told that it would take one business day to reply to my request.

The support people did call back roughly 30 minutes after I left the voice message, but I was on an important call and had to let it go to voicemail. No message was left for me, but I did get called back again about an hour later. I was relieved to discover that installation support was so important to Sun that they went halfway around the world to find the finest support technicians to assist me. The even more heavily accented Indian fellow I spoke with told me that he couldn't help me until I filed my support request online, which I'd already done but hadn't heard back from yet. Thank you for calling, have a nice day, goodbye.

If I hadn't have had my first 60 days free, this "support" would have cost $40 per incident.

That's when I gave up -- I'd tried everything. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I had a wonderful afternoon but this wasn't it.

Next page: JDS features and programs

Despite my best efforts, this software just didn't work for me, so the rest of this review will cover what the software includes and what it should offer if you manage to get it installed and working on your machine. I can't verify that any of these features work as stated; I can't even verify that Sun Java Desktop System 2 works at all on any computer hardware, although I'd say it's a safe bet that someone, somewhere has a computer that this software will work properly on.

Sun has some "canned" screen shots available if you'd like to see what the programs and the desktop look like. I was unable to save or send screen shots when in Safe Mode on my notebook system.

The operating environment

Java Desktop System 2 is billed as an "operating environment," not a GNU/Linux distribution or an operating system. The technical difference between the terms is simple: an operating system is software that controls the hardware and lets you use the computer. An operating environment is an operating system plus an array of tools and utilities that allow you to use the system for a specified purpose. In this case the operating environment is geared toward both system administration in a corporate environment and software development using the Java programming language.

What this means is that you can substitute the operating system module for a different one and still retain the same functionality and purpose for the operating environment. Sun is already developing a version of Java Desktop System that uses Solaris instead of GNU/Linux. Despite the abysmal hardware support and restrictive licensing that Solaris generally offers, it should still be a better choice than the SUSE-based release that Sun currently offers. It would be a different story if they'd used a modern GNU/Linux distribution like SUSE 9.1 or even 9.0, but the basis for JDS2 is SUSE 8.1, which uses the 2.4.19 Linux kernel. At this point in Linux development, 2.4.19 is prehistoric -- it's about a year and a half old.

I bet you could probably upgrade the operating system while leaving the interface and the rest of the environment intact by installing a newer version of SUSE after JDS is on the system. I had the opportunity to try it on my laptop system and it seemed to work at first (JDS was recognized as a viable distribution to upgrade to SUSE 9.1 from) but I didn't have enough space to install all of the packages that I needed with the existing partition setup, so I had to repartition and thus lost the ability to test the upgrade further.


Sun Java Desktop System Release 2 comes with more software firepower than almost any other GNU/Linux distribution on the market. It's not that it has more in terms of the number of packages -- certainly it doesn't have more than what is contained on all of the Debian CDs, or even in the full SUSE installation -- but it has more specially designed software than any other distribution. Specifically I'm talking about:

  • YaST2, the SUSE setup tool
  • SaX2, the SUSE X Window configuration tool
  • Java System Update Service
  • StarOffice 7
  • Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE)
  • Sun Control Station 2.1
  • Sun Java Desktop System Configuration Manager
  • Remote Desktop Takeover
  • Sun Java Studio Standard 5 update 1
  • Enhanced language capabilities, including improved support for Chinese and new support for Japanese, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese

As components of SUSE's distribution, YaST and SaX are part of the same backbone that provides automatic hardware detection and manual configuration through graphical dialogues. YaST also provides an excellent control panel for managing your system's network and other administrative duties that would otherwise have to be done by editing text files by hand.

SaX makes configuring the X Server an easy task if your hardware is supported. You can change the screen resolution and color depth or change hardware settings for your video card and monitor if necessary.

The Java System Update Service is much like Red Hat Network and SUSE's YaST Online Update. It downloads security patches and bug fixes on a schedule (or at your convenience) and installs them for you automatically. This is what you're buying when you pay the yearly license fee. If you don't renew your agreement at the end of one year, you will no longer have access to software updates through this service.

Sun StarOffice 7 is an excellent alternative to Microsoft Office. It has a more-than-competent word processor that can read from and write to the Word .DOC file format; a spreadsheet that can do most of what Excel can do; an equation solver; a database program; and a presentation and slide show production program like PowerPoint. Those who are heavily entrenched in Microsoft Office may find it difficult to switch or adjust to a different office suite at first, but if you will be using StarOffice exclusively within a company, you'll have little trouble being productive with it.

The Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE) 1.4.2 application development environment is included with Java Desktop System, something that doesn't come with very many other GNU/Linux distributions because of licensing issues with Sun. Of course this being their own operating environment, they can't run into those hurdles. J2SE consists of the Java Development Kit (JDK) and the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) and provides the necessary functionality for developing and using software written in the Java language.

The Sun Control Station 2.1 is a resurrection of the Sun Cobalt Control Station product that was previously discontinued. Control Station allows a system administrator to remotely administer, update, and control all nodes on the network that are running Java Desktop System. Through Control Station you can apply patches to some or all machines remotely, track and apply system images, enable or disable services, or any number of custom control modules that you can either get from Sun or design yourself.

The Sun Java Desktop System Configuration Manager is a comprehensive graphical utility for assigning rights and restrictions to users and groups.

The Remote Desktop Takeover utility allows an authorized user to remotely view and interact with other users' desktops, thereby enabling them to help and guide users or troubleshoot remote machines. This appears to work much like the Remote Desktop function in Windows XP Professional and other third-party virtual network connection software.

The special features of JDS 2 -- the Configuration Manager, Control Station and Remote Desktop Takeover -- will not work with the previous edition of JDS, so you'll have to upgrade all of your systems if you're using JDS 2003 and want to take advantage of the new administrative programs in Java Desktop System 2.

I can't tell you much about Sun Java Studio Standard 5 Update 1 because I'm not a Java programmer. Despite the inclusion of this advanced IDE (and the fact that it's based on NetBeans), Sun also includes NetBeans 3.6, which is another fancy GUI-based Java IDE.

Lastly, JDS 2 includes enhanced language capabilities, including improved support for Chinese and new support for Japanese, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese.

Using Sun Java Desktop System

From what little I saw of the desktop, JDS's GNOME-based interface was streamlined, productivity-minded, and aesthetically pleasing. It takes the familiarity of Windows XP, removes all of the extra garbage, and puts all of the right tools in all of the right places while remaining easy to customize. It reminded me vaguely of BlueCurve, but better.


Sun Java Desktop System 2 is a good example of a great idea poorly implemented. The base system is exactly the same as the original 2003 release, the only difference being the addition of the rest of the operating environment: proprietary system management tools and the Java development software. Those are significant enhancements, but considering the atrocious functionality that the base system has, the primary focus should have been on improving the range of hardware support rather than adding more software.

The idea of an operating environment specifically designed for Java development with the look and feel of a streamlined GNOME desktop intrigues me enough to want to learn Java just so I can use it. Only the licensing and the poor hardware support stand in the way of my use of this operating environment, and if it were more sensibly licensed I would recommend it to others who have older systems.

Sun hopes that JDS2 will displace older versions of Microsoft Windows in emerging markets, especially in Asia and South America. Given the expanded language support for these regions and the fact that older versions of Windows are certain to be using outdated hardware, Java Desktop System 2 may do quite well in those markets.

I recommend Sun consider making some changes:

Licensing: change it. If it hasn't occurred to Sun that they're losing customers because of this atrocious license agreement, let me be the first to turn them on to it. Actually I'd be the second to try. The more you tighten your licensing grip, the more customers will slip through your fingers and find other solutions.Hardware: It's what runs the software. I tried four systems, three of which were distinctly different, and none of them would properly run this software. I'm sure that there are many more systems out there that are nothing like mine that also will have at least some degree of difficulty installing or running JDS2. Sun needs to think about using a newer kernel at the very least, and at best a newer version of the whole operating system that runs the JDS environment.Phony phone support really sucks. If you give me a phone number and tell me that this is where to get support, and then I call and there is no one to answer the phone -- or worse yet, there is only voice mail without the possibility of reaching a support tech -- then I become a very unhappy customer. What's worse, when I do get a return call the person calling can hardly communicate with me because English is clearly not his native tongue. The purpose of his call is to tell me that I can get support only if I go through the Web site registration and use the online form to send a support request, which has a one-business-day turnaround time. What if I don't have access to a machine that can get online? This "support" is horrible and the whole process is not in line with the reputation that Sun has for such services.Paper documentation would be nice. How are you supposed to read PDF files on a CD if you can't even get the system working?

Purpose Operating environment
Manufacturer Sun Microsystems
Architectures i386
License Mostly under the GNU GPL, but some parts are tightly restricted by Sun
Market "Emerging markets" in Asia and South America; corporations that are trying to migrate from an old version of MS Windows
Price (retail) $50 annually (click here to order JDS 2 at the Sun online store)
Previous version Java Desktop System 2003
Product Web site Click here

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist, and editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.


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