Sun Needs To Redefine, Not Duplicate The Desktop

by Timothy Appnel

Last week Sun Microsystems announced plans to offer low-cost desktop computers running open source software such as Linux, GNOME, Mozilla, and their StarOffice productivity suite in addition to identity management capabilities (via smart cards) and their portal software.

I couldn't help but roll my eyes and be a bit disappointed. It's not that I don't respect Sun's accomplishments or that I take great issue with their technical ideologies. I would also not call myself a big fan of Microsoft as a developer either. (I'm quite the contrary these days.) You have to give Sun credit for their "cahones" in challenging Microsoft for so long and continuing to live to tell about it.

According to Sun, 38% of customers surveyed are considering alternate products to Microsoft's. Their survey also found that 90% expect software licensing costs to continue rising. Sun believes that their research indicates there is a great opportunity here. I would have to agree, but am disappointed because their announcement didn't speak to the real opportunity at hand -- to redefine the desktop and differentiate their view.

I think that Sun is too optimistic in its primary reliance on price and total cost of ownership, or TCO. It overlooks the fact that most of the corporate workforce already has a PC and applications that they are familiar with on their desks. Furthermore, replacements for the hardware are available at lower commodity prices. What is the advantage to Sun's proposition if Microsoft modifies their licensing and pricing to close the gap tomorrow? That they are running free software and "sticking it" to Microsoft? This is not nearly as relavent to most end users as it is to Sun.

In order to make a long term desktop play and provide a true alternative to Microsoft's vision, what we know as the desktop must be redefined, not duplicated and made "free." History is littered with the carcasses of companies that have failed to compete with Microsoft on the basis of price/performance.

The notion of redefining the desktop isn't so radical when you consider it has changed very little despite the establishment of the ubiquitous Internet platform and its continuing evolution through initiatives such as Web services, P2P, and wireless networks. The desktop as it exists today is not suited to take advantage of these capabilities or to scale in broad decentralized deployments -- like most corporate office staff that use desktop system to get their work done.

A prime example Sun should note is HomeBase DESKTOP, a task-centric Linux desktop alternative that utilizes Red Hat Linux and Mozilla developed by OEone. HomeBase includes a web browser, multiple account email, basic word processor, calendar, address book, multimedia center and a customizable personal portal. It can also integrate any existing Linux applications into the environment. OEone also offers HomeBase ANYWHERE that gives users access to their information from multiple machines or any machine with an Internet connection and a browser. Itís far from perfect, but highly intriguing and refreshing to consider.

Office productivity tools are also in need of a rethink -- or perhaps a diet would be more accurate. It's been my experience that most features in Word, Excel and PowerPoint are rarely used by most of us. Their existence only weighs down the application requiring more powerful and expensive hardware in addition to distracting and confusing the average user. I recall working with WordPerfect 5.1 and Lotus 123 over a decade ago and comparatively speaking MS Office offers me little additional functional value. (These were apps that came on a couple of floppy(!) disks and ran on 386 processors with 4MB of RAM.)

I tried out OpenOffice, the open source community version of Sun's StarOffice, and abandoned it after a short while. While I was impressed and commend that community's effort and dedication, it wasn't really different from what I already had. I'm ready to switch to an Microsoft Office alternative, but not just because itís free and not because it isn't Microsoft.

The opportunity to provide a true alternate to Microsoft continues to develop. The key is not in duplicating it with a lower price tag, but in redefining it. I can only hope that Sun and others come to realize this before repeating history and leaving us with a promise unfulfilled.

What do you think is the key to Linux and open source on the corporate desktop?