Further Adventures With Sun Java Desktop

by Jonathan Gennick

Recently, I installed Sun Java Desktop (SJD) on the PC used by my wife and
son. Today I want to talk about how that install went off. Some interpreted
my weblog yesterday, in which
I reported on my son's difficulties playing games on SJD, as a bit of whinging.
That wasn't meant to be the case. I'm just reporting on the results of what
I look at as an experiment. On their web
page for the product
, Sun says:

The Java Desktop System is a more affordable, secure desktop that is designed
to thrive in a Windows-centric world.

That's quite a claim. How better to discern how close Sun is to that goal than
to install Sun's distribution for some people who have been living quite happily
in the Windows world? In this case, the Guinea Pigs are my wife, son, and my
son's friends.

This experiment comes at an opportune time too, because my son and his friends
had loaded up our Windows system with so much cruft that I was at the point
of needing to either do a reinstall or a lot of cleaning. I'm rather hoping
that with Linux they won't be able to go so crazy at the downloading.


The most difficult part about the installation had nothing whatsoever to do
with Linux. The difficult part was figuring out how to boot my PC into the BIOS
setup. Thanks to Google, I learned to hold down F1 at the beginning of the boot
process. I wish HP (my PC is an HP Pavilion) would display a reminder of that,
similar to the way that my Dell systems remind me to press DEL for the same
purpose. Once I got to the BIOS, I was easily able to boot from SJD CD #1.

Upon booting Sun's installer, I discovered that SJD is a rebranded SuSE. Had
I known that, I might have just bought SuSE
to begin with. Presumably though, Sun has done some customizing of the

I encountered four rough spots during the install process:

  • Very shortly after the installer started, within about 10 seconds, it displayed
    a big, red dialog telling me that the install had failed. My only choice was
    to click an "OK" button by way of acknowledgment. Clicking that
    button took me to a window that let me install the software. From there, the
    install proceeded normally. I went through the install process twice, this
    fail first before installing happened consistently, and it was confusing.
    If it was something specific that failed, and that I need to worry about,
    the failure message did not even come close to making that clear.

  • The installer automatically picked up on the partitioning scheme I'd used
    for a prior install of SuSE 8.1 on that same drive, and it ignored a fourth
    partition that happened to be on the drive. I had to manually adjust the partitioning
    scheme to use all the available drive space.

  • The installer wanted to use 1280x1024 as my default screen resolution. I
    wanted to use 1024x768. When I selected 1024x768 as the default, the installer
    removed 1280x1024 from the list of allowed resolutions. The default resolution
    and the highest possible resolution are two distinct values that should not
    be tied together like they are in SJD's install.

  • The first time through, the installer hung at the 95% point on CD #2.

Other than these minor glitches, the install was the same as any other SuSE
install I've done. That fourth glitch I'm not so sure was real. There were many,
random pauses during the copying of files, and it's possible I didn't wait long
enough before assuming the installer was hung. I keep an open mind on that point.

One other issue, and I won't call it a glitch, involves my printer. The installer
detected my printer, an HP 7550, and display the printer's name. That lead me
to believe it had also configured the printer. However, that wasn't the case.
I realize now that the installer displayed a message to that effect, but the
meaning of that message wasn't clear to me at the time. SJD doesn't directly
support the HP 7550. However, it does provide a driver for the HP 7150, which
is a close enough. I configured the printer manually, post-install, and was
pleased with how easily I could do that.

SJD's User Interface

One of the things that attracted me to SJD was a screenshot on Sun's website
of the SJD desktop showing a Launch menu. Here's one,
and there's also a smaller one on the main,
SJD page. The screenshots reminded me of Windows, and while some may not consider
that a good thing, it is, in fact, a good thing for Sun's intended audience.
It's good for my family and I too, because it eases the transition from Windows.

My reaction on opening the Launch menu is that it's well-thought-out.
The top three entries are for email, browsing, and StarOffice, covering the
three most-likely reasons any business user would have for going to that menu.
A Preferences submenu brings you to a set of applications similar in
nature to Window's control-panel, that let you adjust various aspects of your
system. For the first time ever in a Linux installation I am easily able to
change my monitor resolution. I was also easily able to define my printer, once
I realized that hadn't happened during the install process. I don't know whether
to credit Gnome, or Sun, but SJD is far easier for me to reconfigure post-install
than any other Linux system I've ever used. I should note here, that my experience
is limited to various SuSE distributions (7.2, 8.0), usually running KDE, and,
before those, Red Hat. It's possible that all Linux distributions have made
strides in this area. I can only report on my experiences with what I've tried.

One note about monitor resolution. As I mentioned earlier, during the install
process, I chose 1024x768 as my default resolution. The installer also used
that as the maximum resolution, and, while I can change my resolution
on-the-fly, I can't change it to 1280x1024. This linkage between two, unrelated
values offends my sense of elegance, but it's really not much of a problem,
as my physical monitor is best run at 1024x768 to begin with.

Two other menus deserve some mention. There's an Applications menu and
an Extras menu. The distinction between these two menus is lost on me,
since they both contain applications. Indeed, the very first item under Extras
is Java Applications, making me wonder why it's not under the Applications
menu instead. However, after just a brief bit of exploring, my son and I have
had no trouble finding things under these menus. Under Extras, you'll
find entries for such things as Image Editor, Image Organizer,
and Diagrams and Flowcharts. The underlying applications are gimp,
gthumb, and dia. I very much like the functional naming used for
these applications. I guarantee you, my wife and son will have a much better
time understanding Image Editor as opposed to gimp.

The Applications menu holds submenus for Accessories, Games,
Multimedia, and so forth. Most menu items are easy to understand. My
son found the Games menu rather quickly, and he very much likes the snake
game that ships with Gnome. He also found the speaker-volume control under Multimedia,
and was able to correct me when I mistakenly went under the System Tools
submenu to fire up the Volume Manager (for disks) to adjust the speaker

Configuring Applications

I like the applications that ship with SJD. Mozilla, the web browser, just
works. I didn't need to configure that at all. Even better, my wife and son
are perfectly happy with it. Jeff, my son, especially likes Mozilla's built-in
popup blocker.

Evolution is the email client, and it was as easy to configure as any email
client I've used. I fired it up, a series of dialogs asked me for my mail server
names, account name, password, etc., and I was good to go. Or rather, my wife
was good to go. She's been using Forte
, but her initial reaction to Evolution has been good, and she doesn't
seem to mind at all adapting to it.

Sun's choice of office suite is a no-brainer: StarOffice 7. I find one
thing to be rather weird about Star Office, and also OpenOffice, and that's
that you need to install them once for each user. Furthermore, the choice of
installation options is confusing. I was given a choice between Workstation
and Local Install. I want both! I consider my computer to
be a workstation, and I want the software installed locally. The correct, and
completely counterintuitive choice here is the Workstation Install, which
is described as the install to use when running the StarOffice software from
a network location, except that I'm not running it from a network location,
I'm running it locally. Had I not already been through this a time or two in
the Windows world, I'd have made the wrong choice. In fact, under Windows, it's
always a frustration to get OpenOffice configured so that it can be used by
multiple users, but I digress.

For awhile, I wasn't sure what to give my wife to use for newsgroups. Then
I realized that Mozilla must handle those, and, sure enough, it does. I could
only wish for a Newsgroups menu item somewhere under the Launch
menu. Such a menu item would make it easier to launch the newsreader, and would've
made it easier for me to find the newsreader to begin with. I'll probably add
that menu item too, just as soon as I learn how.

All-in-all, I'm very happy with Sun's choice of applications. I also like the
fact that they seem to have included only one application of each type. Maybe
that's not quite true. There does seem to be more than one text editor: gedit
and vim, but gedit is the only one accessible via the GUI. For purposes
of getting started, it's easier not having to choose from a plethora of browsers,
newsreaders, and so forth. We have what we need now, and we can branch out later
if we want to.

Mounting and Unmounting

Yesterday my son bought himself a USB
Jump Drive
to use instead of floppy-disks at school. He was pleased as punch
with his new purchase, while all the way home I was worried about whether it
would function under Linux. I'm happy to report that it worked just fine. He
plugged it into the computer, Linux recognized and mounted the drive, and put
an icon on the desktop for him to use in later dismounting the drive. Surprisingly
for an eight-year-old, Jeff didn't have any trouble at all with the concept
of unmounting a drive before removing it.

The bad news is that there is a glitch here. Linux, or at least SJD, sometimes
gets confused and refuses to unmount my son's USB drive, claiming that the drive
is busy, even when we've closed all the applications and windows. This
problem extends to floppy disks too. Several times last night we were unable
to "Eject" floppy disks. Linux would claim a disk was busy when clearly
that was not the case. For now, my son attempts to unmount his USB drive, and,
when that fails, he resorts to yanking it from the system. What else can he

My son also tried the USB drive on Windows, and discovered that it's easier
to use on Linux. From Windows, you need to shut down power to the USB port before
removing the drive. To do that, you need to click on one of these little, system-tray
icons in the lower right corner of the screen. On my system at least, the icon
you need to click is one of the hidden icons, so you first have to click the
little, "<" symbol to expand the list of icons. Then, quickly,
before the list collapses again, you must hover your cursor over each little
icon in turn, wait for the tooltip to appear, read the tip to see whether you've
got the correct icon, and the list will collapse on you while doing this, and
you'll get frustrated. My son got frustrated, and he'll tell you that his USB
drive is easier to use under Linux. Linux, or at least SJD, has it right here,
putting that big, well-labeled, hard-to-miss icon right on your desktop where
it's easy to find when you want to unmount the drive.


I shouldn't label this section "Conclusion", because the experiment
is ongoing. My son has agreed to give Linux a week. His reaction so far is mixed.
You should have seen him last night, standing there on the stairway, telling
me in his most cheerful voice that "they" should "smoosh"
Linux and Windows XP together, to make one system. To some extent, he's anticipated
. He just doesn't know that yet.

Reaction to the applications, email, browser, office suite, has so far been
positive. Games are the only issue. For Linux to win there, I don't necessarily
need to get every Windows and Internet game to run. All I need, I think, is
to collect enough good games for my son to play. If he finds a few, good games
that he likes under Linux, he won't want to give those up to go back to Windows.
At least, that's my hope. We'll see.


2004-02-09 08:32:24
Dual boot it Glenn.
2004-02-09 09:59:18
Smooshing Windows XP and Linux one description of Mac OS X. Be nice if it ran on x86 hardware, but really, it is the best of both worlds: unix goodness with commericial support and polish.

I think that Sun at this point is not going after the home user market, but instead the call centers, hospitals and the like. Consequently, I don't think that they care too much if some games do not work.

Sounds like Sun really needs to get its act together with the install process though. Good luck with your experiment.

2004-02-09 14:35:01
Use vmware to run old applications inside Windows, if needed.
Use vmware to run old applications inside Windows, if needed
2004-02-09 14:36:09
Applications: actually the games issue will remain
It will remain because kids want the latest games every autumn and spring ;-> and they want to be the first on the block to get those games...
Jonathan Gennick
2004-02-09 14:48:45
Applications: actually the games issue will remain
I'm fortunate here, I think, because I'm not in the habit of buying my son games, and he's not old enough to buy his own yet. Pretty much the only games he gets are those that he finds on Internet sites. I have bought him a few, but I haven't seen him play anything I've bought him long enough to justify my having bought it. In general, I've tried to discourage my kids from playing computer games. We have no game machines, neither child has game-boy, etc.

Annoyingly, my son is getting old enough to want a game-boy, and, if he saves his allowance enough, he may just get one. I'm not going to buy it for him, but I'm not going to stand in his way either, so long as he saves and spends his own money. I rather hope though, that he finds other things to do.