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Sun keeps plugging at thin clients

Despite lackluster success thus far, the computing giant is forging ahead to supplant full-fledged PCs with stripped-down machines called thin clients.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Despite lackluster success thus far, Sun Microsystems is forging ahead to supplant full-fledged PCs with stripped-down machines called thin clients.

At an event Thursday to show off technology coming from the Sun Labs research gurus, Sun showed improvements to its Sun Ray thin client products that let the machines escape their need for top-notch networks. Sun also showed software that lets regular computers act like thin clients.

Sun has hoped for years that schools, businesses and even individuals would bypass PCs, which have lots of computing power but are crash-prone and difficult to manage in large groups. Thin clients leave the heavy computational lifting to a high-powered centralized server, Sun's area of expertise, and thus channel technology spending toward Sun and not Intel and Microsoft.

Sun and rivals Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and IBM have taken to showing off research projects, an effort to convince customers and computer scientists that the companies are in the technological vanguard.

Sun also showed work Thursday such as Project Ace to quickly assemble corporate computing applications with point-and-click methods, Project SuperNets to make it easier to build private networks atop the public Internet, Project HotSwap to let administrators switch out Java program components without having to stop the program using the components, and uses of the Jxta peer-to-peer software to send photos and play tic-tac-toe.

But thin clients remain a challenge. PCs still are a staple of the computing world, even relatively controlled environments such as schools and corporations; thin clients are marginalized. The idea behind the improvements that Sun is working on is to make thin clients useful outside these tightly controlled environments.

If successful, Sun stands not only to gain in its longtime goals of stealing away some Microsoft's near-guaranteed revenue source but also to dramatically alter the average employee's computing experience.

Today, a person's computing life is centered on that person's laptop or desktop computer: It's where applications such as word processors run and documents are stored. With thin clients, those activities move to servers, letting a person move from one thin client to another.

It's a computing experience that harkens back to earlier days of computing, when mammoth mainframes would do all the work while people would connect with "dumb terminals" that were little more than keyboards with a screen that could display text.

The Internet has introduced server-centric computing to a new generation of computer users through services at Yahoo, Lycos.com and other companies that offer online e-mail, calendars and other services that can be accessed from almost any networked computer.

For corporate computing, the advantage of server-centric computing is that an employee can tap into the workplace from any computer--one in a different office, one at home, a kiosk in an airport--without having to worry about synchronizing files between different systems or having a laptop with corporate secrets stolen. And administrators have a much easier time managing computers since they have to control a relatively small number of servers while the thin clients require almost no care and feeding.

Despite some modest success at Alamo Rent-a-Car and the U.S. Navy, though, the concept hasn't caught on widely; people like their PCs. They like installing the latest chat software, playing games, burning CDs and having systems that work even without a network connection.

Sun is working to nibble away at the PC's advantage.

One change Sun is working on is making Sun Rays work over slower connections such as digital subscriber lines. Today, the product requires a network that can transfer data at 100 megabits per second, about 300 times faster than the 384 kilobits per second common on DSL connections.

The high-speed network is required because a server is sending a constant stream of video information, telling the Sun Ray what to display. Each time the mouse is moved, a server registers the change and sends updated screen information to the Sun Ray.

But while 100mbps networks now are mainstream technology, slower 10mbps connections are still commonplace within organizations, and Sun wants telecommuters to be able to use the system over even slower DSL connections.

Consequently, Sun researchers are building Sun Ray software that compresses data in a combination of ways--one way for text, a different way for images, said researcher Jordan Slott.

However, decompressing data requires processing power in the thin client. Sun is testing a system with a 400MHz Alchemy processor from Advanced Micro Devices that runs Red Hat's eCos operating system. The system can decode full 24 frame-per-second video at a resolution of 768 pixels by 461 pixels, Slott said.

Sun is considering switching the Sun Ray's own operating system to eCos, a move that would make it easier to change underlying hardware, Slott said.

Introduced in 1999, the Sun Ray 1 is a small computing cabinet with a LCD monitor and a smart card reader for identifying a computer user. The later Sun Ray 150 integrates the computing electronics with the screen into a single unit, while the Sun Ray 100 is similar to the Sun Ray 1 but with a cheaper conventional monitor.

The Sun Rays themselves have only the most modest computing power: a 100MHz MicroSparc IIep processor, an ATI graphics system, 8MB of memory and 8MB of video memory.

In a strange twist, Sun also is working to make ordinary PCs work like thin clients through a project called SunFlight. While many of the cost-saving advantages of thin clients don't apply when using a PC, it does make the back-end server infrastructure more useful since a Sun Ray isn't required.

The software automatically adjusts to how fast the network connection is, with faster network connections leading to better image quality, said researcher Kristen McIntyre.

Sun also is working on a version of its StarOffice software, a Microsoft Office competitor, that's adapted to the world of thin clients. Sun currently is emphasizing the standalone PC version--the version 6.0 update will be formally launched in May--while continuing with a years-long revamp of the server-centric version, called Sun Open Net Environment Webtop.

"The only releases we've done of that product so far have been in the form of a technology release, not a fully turnkey product you could deploy in your enterprise," said Mike Rogers, the Sun vice president in charge of the product, in March. He stands by the position Sun offered when it first acquired the StarOffice products. "We're convinced that down the road this is going to be the way most offices" run office software, he said.

Sun also is working to divert PC computing attention to handheld computers and cell phones. Part of that work involves shunting work such as speech recognition off those gadgets and onto servers, said researcher Stephen Uhler.