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Sun cools down Linux desktop plan

Java Desktop System will continue to exist, but expect to see "less of an emphasis" on it, company's top software exec says.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems is stepping away from an effort to sell the Linux operating system for desktop computers, the server and software company's top software executive said Tuesday.

The Java Desktop System will continue to exist as a product, but now chiefly as software based on Sun's Solaris operating system and directed at programmers, John Loiacono, executive vice president of software, said at a meeting with reporters here at the JavaOne trade show.

"You're going to see less of an emphasis on JDS on Linux," Loiacono said. "The strategy has changed slightly."

That's a big change from three years ago, when Sun launched the project and Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy touted JDS--then code-named Project Mad Hatter--as a combination of a server and Linux PCs that would be more cost-effective than Microsoft Windows. A server and 100 PCs would cost about $300,000 over five years, Sun said at the time. Later, the company revealed that JDS was based on Novell's Suse desktop Linux software.

"We think this is going to garner a lot of industry support," McNealy said of Mad Hatter in September 2002. "We believe we've got all the ducks lined up in the right direction."

But it didn't catch on, and Sun has plenty of fish to fry already, said Yankee Group analyst Dana Gardner. "Sun has got an awful lot on its plate right now," Gardner said. "It can't overspend on its research and development by one penny, because Wall Street will whack them."

It's possible the idea could resurface later, Gardner added. "I think Sun would love to convince a major (telecommunications service) carrier that providing a desktop format as a service is a great idea. JDS will probably be relegated to the back burner on simmer until the conditions are right for the carriers to do that."

Linux is popular on servers, but it's a hard sell for desktop computing, where Microsoft has a stronghold. Sun still has other efforts afoot in the market, however. One is its StarOffice software--a competitor to Microsoft Office and a close relative of the open-source Another is its Sun Ray thin clients, which are display screens that rely on a central server to handle processing duties and that are being augmented with Windows abilities through Sun's acquisition of Tarantella.

One casualty of the JDS changes could be a partnership with the China Standard Software Co. (CSSC), a consortium of companies supported by the Chinese government, which Sun said in 2003 would adopt Sun's desktop Linux. "We're going to immediately roll out the Java Desktop System to between a half million and a million desktops in 2004. It makes us instantaneously the No. 1 Linux desktop play on the planet," McNealy said at the time.

It's not clear whether that milestone was met. CSSC has other options. In April, Novell announced a deal with CSSC to "cooperate to provide technology, services and marketing to optimize and promote Linux to the Chinese market."