Today, Sun Microsystems will announce plans to battle Microsoft for the supremacy of the PC desktop, using low-cost alternatives to the software giant's Windows and Microsoft Office products. Sun will introduce its new Linux distribution, due early in 2003, which it will use in tandem with the StarOffice office productivity suite to provide enterprises with a cost-efficient choice. Sun feels that this is the perfect time to hit Microsoft with attacks to its two cash cows, because Microsoft has raised prices and stiffened licensing terms, despite a weakened economy and lower corporate spending. Equally problematic for the company, Microsoft's offerings are widely considered to be unacceptable security risks.
"The industry is ready," says Sun executive vice president Jonathan Schwartz. "There is a great opportunity for a major systems company \[such as Sun\] to commercialize a full Linux desktop."
Historically, companies have used Linux a low-cost server product for file, Web and print serving, but rarely is the solution deployed on the desktop because of its difficult-to-use, UNIX-like underpinnings and the relative immaturity of its desktop interface and tools. But recent improvements to the Linux desktop, most notably from companies such as Ximian and Red Hat, have made the notion of Linux desktop solutions more viable. Microsoft's recent move to Licensing 6.0, which raises costs for many of the company's customers, is just icing on the cake, Linux advocates say. After writing an article about Licensing 6.0 earlier this summer for Windows & .NET Magazine, I was deluged with email from administrators and managers who were just beginning Linux evaluations because of the Microsoft price increases (URL below).
Still, even Sun admits that its desktop push is in the early stages, and not yet ready for many office workers. So the company is targeting certain cost-sensitive markets with its Linux desktop solutions, such as corporate call centers and customer service areas, retail banking, factories, and government and educational institutions. Sun doesn't expect companies to switch over more advanced workers that need the wider range of functionality provided by full-powered Windows PCs to Linux and StarOffice just yet, the company says. Instead, Sun will offer customers package deals that include third-party PCs, desktop software, and smart card interfaces for logons. The idea is that users should be able to walk up to any PC in the workplace and get access to their critical applications and data, and not be tied to a single PC.
Critics of the plan say that Sun will only hurt sales of its high-end Solaris offering, and not Windows. But Sun counters that Solaris is an expensive server operating system, and that Linux can be used in a low-end, complementary fashion alongside Solaris. It would be as prohibitively expensive for institutions to roll out Solaris desktops as it would to roll-out Windows, but Linux combined with low-cost hardware and StarOffice is a compelling solution for many companies, Sun says.
Having evaluated recent and upcoming Linux distributions such as Red Hat Linux 8, I can say that the open source OS is more viable now than ever, and StarOffice is a mature, stable, and compatible alternative to Microsoft Office. Whether corporations embrace these solutions remains to be seen, but Sun is definitely starting with the right markets. But the most curious aspect to this story is that Microsoft has yet to respond to the threat with lower prices and other concessions. The time to act comes before your market share begins eroding, not after.