September 27, 2003

Sun's software revolution

- by John O'Sullivan -
I finally realized the revolution is on after reading about the Java Enterprise System in Fortune. I'd thought Sun's new software strategy was just the latest of the company's attempts at figuring out how to make money from Java. But there are three threads that together change the whole game. First is a practical, functional Linux desktop aimed at the business customer from a big and respected company. Second is a simple, attractive pricing model. Third is Sun's intention to commoditize enterprise end-user software. No matter how successful the Java Desktop System turns out, this last point ensures permanent change in the computer industry.

Sun's new system has two parts, the Java Enterprise System (JES) and the Java Desktop System (JDS). The Enterprise System takes all of Sun's back-end software infrastructure and puts it into one package priced at $100 per employee per year including support and upgrades -- a nice easy-to-chew purchase, kind of a re-integrated ONE. JDS comprises a Linux OS, plus StarOffice, Evolution Email and calendaring, Mozilla for browsing, an instant messaging client, RealOne Player, and the usual variety of Linux software, all wrapped in a tweaked version of Gnome 2.2. The price is also $100 per employee per year, or $50 if you use the JES as well. As a sweetener, you get 50% off for each existing Microsoft or Linux desktop license you trade in.

Fortune quotes Sun software chief Jonathan Schwartz as saying, "We plan to take a $20 billion market and turn it into a $3 billion market". By even saying such a thing, Sun has let the genie out of the bottle. If you can get a decent end-user deployment with most of the software infrastructure you need for a total of $150 per employee per year, then what does that make Windows XP + Office XP + Windows Server 2003 + Exchange + IIS worth? Not much more than $150 per year is my guess.

Once this ball starts rolling nobody will be able to stop it. By even asking Sun for a quote, most enterprise customers will be able to demand deep price cuts from Microsoft or any other middleware vendor. And Sun has made a brilliant move by saying it will sell direct only to companies with more than 1,000 employees. Smaller companies will be handled by resellers. That empowers thousands of aggressive small business people to swarm the small business market with JES.

The pricing model itself is novel. Sun says it can determine head-count by reading SEC filings for public companies. This is a staggering innovation in a business fraught with Byzantine complexity. If it's Tuesday, and you have two processors, and the wind is in the east, then your server license costs... Why should the pricing for software be more complicated than the pricing for fax machines or coffee? It suits the vendors, but there is little benefit for most customers.

Sun's whole system is built on open standards, thus no vendor lock-in, at least at the desktop. Any organization that takes the plunge with JES will be able to switch to Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, or a homegrown distro with a minimum of fuss. Can you imagine the delight of your typical overworked sysadmins if they could roll their own desktop deployment?

And then there is the desktop itself. The best distros started to hit the magic "ready-for-the-desktop" level in the last six months. KDE, Gnome, and their associated packages have reached a maturity comparable to Windows in terms of end-user experience. I find that almost without noticing it, most of my day-to-day work is now done with open source applications: Mozilla Firebird for Web browsing, Mozilla Thunderbird for email, OpenOffice for writing and spreadsheets, Jedit for HTML editing, and Filezilla or Hotline for file transfers. That leaves Winamp as the only always-open closed-source app on my desktop.

Except for a few holes, Linux now makes more sense as an upgrade path from Windows 98 than does XP. What is needed now is a high profile push by a credible player with no vested interest in Linux -- Sun, for example. Pure play companies like SuSE and Red Hat don't have the marketing muscle for a mass-market breakout. Sun does. No distro can summon the combination of money, corporate credibility and technological expertise to get really big customers to take the plunge. Sun can.

I don't know how this is going to pan out for Sun. It has dropped the ball before. At least one analyst has already questioned their commitment to Linux. That's a valid concern, but it misses the main point. What's news here is not another "Next Big Thing" announcement from Sun; we seem to get one of those every six months. The news is a credible, coherent Linux desktop from a major player. Despite their big bets on Linux, neither HP or IBM has ventured into this territory. The combination of the desktop, the pricing model, and Sun's promise to gut the middleware market is bad news for Microsoft, IBM, and anyone else that makes money from the complexity of enterprise systems. If this strategy gains even a little traction, it will start a pricing downdraft through the whole industry.

Software is about to undergo the same commoditization that hardware did 10 years ago. The field will soon be littered with the corpses of proprietary companies that cannot adapt. The long-awaited revolution has begun. Hang on, its going to be a wild ride.

John O'Sullivan takes care of sales, marketing and product management
at Hotsprings Inc., a Toronto
company creating open source applications and development tools. Hotsprings
technology was acquired from Hotline Communications, developer of Hotline
Connect and a pioneer of P2P applications.

Click Here!