September 17, 2003

First look at Sun's new desktop

- by Chris Gulker -
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sun Microsystems' new Gnome-derived Java Desktop System is one part of a strategy that CEO Scott McNealy says will reduce the costs -- and head count -- of the IT industry by an order of magnitude over the next five years. I put a beta version of Sun's desktop, previously code-named Mad Hatter, through its paces, running on Sun's servers. I have plans to run it on x86 machines in an attempt to see if this open source derivative is the equal of Microsoft on the desktop.

On-the-spot first test

My first stop after Tuesdayââ¬â¢s keynote presos at SunNetwork was the bank of Sun Ray thin clients arrayed along one wall in the North Hall of Moscone Center. Every attendee at the SunNetwork conference was issued a Java Card in lieu of the usual mag-stripe conference badge that grants the holder a full desktop, with e-mail client, browser, and a full suite of apps, including the newly released Star Office 7 on any of the hall's computers.

I slipped my Java Card into the reader on the side of the very nice 17-inch flat panel of a Sun Ray 150. Immediately a little animated graphic popped up, showing my diskless, OS-less, and stateless Sun Ray attempting a connection to a gateway server. A graphic of an animated lock popped up, opened, and then, bummer, an "Internal PAM error" dialog box with a rather unhelpful OK button appeared. Not good.

After a couple more fits, starts, and blank screens, a Solaris splash screen appeared, then a Gnome 2.0 line in one corner, and up came my pleasant blue desktop, looking for all the world like the Mad Hatter desktop I'd seen Friday at Sun and today at the keynote. It offered a Launch button where the Start button is found on most Windows screens, a Start Here icon that offered access to applications and preferences and a user folder (that identified me by number, not name) along with a trash can icon.

In fairness, conference-goers on either side of me had much less difficulty logging in.

Gnome look and feel

Unlike Windows, this desktop features a top-of-screen menu bar -- actually a long, thin Gnome panel -- positioned not unlike the bar that greets Mac users, with items labeled Programs and Actions. The Programs menu, Start Here icon and Launch button all offered different ways to get to the same underlying apps, preferences, and data.

For a knowledgeable user, that's good and lets a body work the way they're most comfortable. In the IT environment of a large, non-technical company, however, it would probably be a nightmare of confusion and lost productivity without a couple days' training. To be fair, this terminal was located at a Sun developer's conference where everybody in the hall short of building staff are probably among the most computer-literate people in the world.

Both McNealy and Sun software VP Jonathan Schwartz pointed out during keynote speeches that the Java Desktop System is a part of the Java Enterprise System, which allows administrators to completely customize the behavior of the desktop; indeed, Schwartz demonstrated tuning Star Office 7 on just such a desktop to the granular level of defining what macros would be allowed to run.

I looked around for Evolution, part of the announced Java Desktop System package, but to no avail. I did finally find a simple mail app in a subfolder on the Launch menu, and configured it to check my IMAP server. No dice ... no mail and no error messages helpful or otherwise. I sent a message, cc'ing myself, and it seemed to go; it went to the Sent folder anyway, but nothing showed up in the In box. The machine did inform me it was creating a mail spool for me somewhere on the vast Sun server that powered this machine.

The Mozilla browser, nicely themed to match the desktop, came up into a Sun portal page, politely asking me (by name, not number) to change my log-in from the conference default. That accomplished, I had no problem getting to Net resources like a Webmail system.

Useful for workers with good skills

This desktop, which I'm presuming is the Java Desktop System's immediate predecessor (Java Desktop System is based on Gnome 2.2, not 2.0, according to Sun's desktop technology VP Curtis Sasaki). Like other relatively polished, enterprise-oriented versions of Gnome (Ximian XD2 comes to mind), this desktop should be useful to office workers with good computer skills and could work for some with more modest skills with appropriate configuration and training.

Desktops like this one differ from Windows and even Mac just by degree of polish and fit and finish. Cut and paste worked just about everywhere I tried, though some of the open source apps behave a bit differently from the more uniform Star Office 7 applications. For example, terminal windows treat Control-C differently than Star Office Writer, but an average office worker will never see a terminal window.

Gnome and some apps could do a better job of alerting users to lengthy processes, e.g. application launches. I'm happy to click and wait patiently to see if something will happen, but many productivity workers get lost or confused when they click and nothing happens -- not a watch, an hourglass, or a spinning ball -- to let them know something's working.

Interaction with MS documents in Star Office 7 was perfect as far as I could see in my brief spin. I repeated Schwartz's keynote demo by going to and opening documents like Bill Gates's most recent PowerPoint preso, which came up seemingly without flaw in Star Office. I wasn't able to find documents that contained macros to at least briefly test Star Office 7's new macro compatibility.

Star Office did offer an export to PDF option, but I couldn't find the Acrobat Reader that Sun announced would be part of Java Desktop System, along with Macromedia Flash and Real players. Again, I suspect this is Java Desktop System's predecessor, and not Mad Hatter itself.

Verdict: It's quite good enough

My verdict after a first look is that, properly managed, this desktop should be about as productive in at least some enterprise settings as Windows 98 or 2000. The problems it exhibits are really those shared with virtually every computer OS at the current state of the art, as opposed to being uniquely open source issues.

It remains to be seen if businesses truly can save money with Java Desktop System, since migration issues and the availability of key enterprise applications will play into that equation. This desktop, covered by Sun's new, simple, and seemingly inexpensive licensing, called Orion, may be very interesting to cost-conscious companies. In any case, enterprises are likely to find that this desktop is good enough and ready to deploy for at least some classes of workers.

Chris Gulker, a Silicon Valley-based free-lance technology writer, has authored more than 130 articles and columns since 1998. He shares an office with 7 computers that mostly work, an Australian Shepherd, and a small gray cat with an attitude.


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