September 19, 2003

Review: Java Desktop System on Linux


- by Chris Gulker -
Open source is ready for the real world. Sun Microsystems' just-released Java Desktop System for x86 is a polished Linux desktop that rivals Windows XP and even Mac OS X for fit, finish and ease of use. Whether corporations, governments and educational institutions adopt it will likely have more to do with migration issues and financial concerns than the viability of this Gnome-based user environment.

Yesterday I reviewed the Gnome 2.0-based desktop that Sun is featuring on the Sun Ray thin clients at SunNetwork, and offered the opinion that, properly configured, it would be as usable as Windows 98 or Windows 2000.

After spending an evening and morning with the Gnome 2.2-based Java Desktop System, I can report that Sun has what appears to me to be the most polished and real-world user-ready Linux desktop in existence.

During my years as a front-line IT worker, I learned that it's the small stuff that trips up most non-technical computer users. Things like exposed hierarchical file systems, mysterious, jargon-labeled icons and readily available configuration screens can create chaos when multiplied by dozens or hundreds of workers with modest (or worse) computer skills.

That's why successive Windows interfaces have been progressively dumbed-down from the perspective of a highly-computer-literate user. Marketing types refer to this as greater ease of use.

And Sun has clearly done its homework on ease-of-use for the enterprise with this first release of Java Desktop System, which launches into a screen that gives workers accustomed to Windows OSes just enough clearly-labeled options to get down to work.

At launch, a pleasant, subdued blue-and-gray themed desktop offers users 5 familiar icons and a thin bottom-mounted panel with a Launch button. Launch produces a mercifully short list of clear options: Email and Calendar, Star Office 7 and Web Browser are at the top of the list, along with Open Recent and Find Files as well as Lock Screen and Log Out.

Other entries on the demo disk's launch bar allow one to set preferences and browse through long lists of applications and widgets arranged in categories. Although common on most Linux desktops one can imagine that these might be partially or completely missing in many enterprise settings where things like IM and playing MP3s are not high on the list of approved employee activities.

One improvement is the Documents folder on the desktop. Documents is in the user's home directory, and /home/username is brought to the desktop in many current Linux distros. But as I discovered working with a church administrator in last week's "Linux for mom" investigation, non-technical workers can become confused dealing with application preferences directories and other home-directory fixtures. Murphy's law of hierarchical file systems states that if a directory exists, and if it is writable, a user will save something important to it, and have no idea how to find it later (short of calling the IT department).

While it may seem trivial to the tech-savvy, that Documents folder shows that Sun is listening to end users. Documents has subfolders for pictures, presentations and text, thus providing some structure, as well as a home for 2 common types of output from Star Office.

This Computer opened with a view of everything on my system that could store data including Linux and other hard drive partitions, CD ROM, floppy, Network Places and my own desktop Documents folder. Presumably this would be configured on production systems to restrict access to just local storage and the user's permitted LAN shares.

Network Places, when opened from either This Computer or the desktop did a perfect job of discovering the NFS and SMB shares on my LAN and displaying their contents. By contrast, my Ximian XD2/Red Hat 9 machine found the shares, but wouldn't display the contents correctly. A USB compact flash card reader failed to automount on either the desktop or in This Computer, while it showed up fine on the Ximian XD2/Red Hat 9 distro.

Sun had hoped to demo syncing with USB devices including PocketPCs at SunNetwork, but that demo, while mentioned, was never shown. Some work apparently remains to be done to get this beta ready for the cruel world.

Sun has done a nice job in extending the desktop's theme to every application and widget I tried including Sun's own Java applications and familiar Open Source offerings like gtkam and CD Player. The Nautilus file browser, while initially set to a large icon view, allowed a side pane and file tree display not unlike Windows Explorer, and it uncomplainingly offered a view of everything in the file system, another feature that presumably would not be welcomed in an enterprise production desktop. The user's Documents directory was helpfully present in the browser's tool panel, a behavior not unlike Apple's Mac OS X Aqua windows.

Star Office 7 will be reviewed separately on NewsForge, but suffice to say it's more Office-like than ever. Sun's version of Evolution is good, and it's worth noting that it comes up configured to make an Outlook or Outlook Express user feel right at home. Even the setup wizard has been scrubbed to be more like user-friendly offerings on Windows and Mac. Cut, copy and paste worked as expected across all of the applications I tried. I was even offered an hourglass cursor during Evolution's longish first boot, though not, strangely, during the very long wait for Star Office 7's first launch.

Final verdict? In my opinion Java Desktop System could be dropped into most non-technical enterprises in places where general productivity was the mission, with perhaps only a little more fuss than a Windows upgrade. While it's a little hard to judge performance critically, since the demo runs from a CD, it ran nicely on a 900 MHz Athlon system, and I have to suspect that, since it is, after all, Linux and Gnome, it will run on relatively modest enterprise computers with rather fewer resources than Windows OSes, especially XP.

The price, $50 per seat per year, including updates and support is attractive, especially if Sun's $100/seat Java Enterprise System lives up to its goal of allowing 2000+ users to be administered by a single IT worker.

While it's not yet clear that Linux desktops will seize Microsoft's biggest market, it is clear to me, at least, that Open Source software is ready for use by vast numbers of non-technical productivity workers, especially when given the kind of polish that Sun has applied to the Java Desktop System.

Chris Gulker, a Silicon Valley-based freelance 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.


  • Linux
Click Here!