Wal-Mart sells PCs with Sun's Linux

To bring Linux-based PCs to average consumers, America's largest retailer has signed up a new partner: Sun Microsystems.

Stephen Shankland
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4 min read
MENLO PARK, Calif.--Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, has begun selling Microtel PCs that come with Sun Microsystems' version of the Linux operating system.

"We are seriously considering Wal-Mart to be the PC supplier for Sun Microsystems," Jonathan Schwartz, head of Sun's software group, said in a meeting with reporters here Tuesday. Separately, he said an unnamed European bank is using Sun's Linux software for 10,000 tellers.

Sun makes its money chiefly by selling servers--powerful networked computers--but is using the Linux operating system as a tool to expand its attacks on Microsoft and PC makers. But it's not just a Linux strategy: The company's Linux-based Java Desktop System software product in the future will also be available with the company's Solaris version of the Unix operating system.

The PCs join several other Microtel Linux models that Wal-Mart has sold, including models with Novell's SuSE Linux, in addition to Lycoris and Lindows.

There are several models ranging from $298 to $698. The $398 Microtel SYSWM8003 comes with an Advanced Micro Devices Athlon XP 2400+ processor, 128MB of memory, a CD-ROM drive, a 40GB hard drive and Sun's StarOffice software suite--but no monitor. The $698 SYSWM8006 has Intel's Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of memory, an 80GB hard drive and a CD-RW-DVD combination drive.

Desktop Linux is heating up, as companies launch increasingly bold attacks on the stronghold of Microsoft Windows.

Last week, No. 1 PC seller Hewlett-Packard signed a deal to ship SuSE Linux on its PCs, models that will start shipping in the second half of 2004. And Red Hat, the top Linux seller, will launch a desktop Linux product later in 2004, Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said last week.

Some believe that Sun rival Dell will be the Wal-Mart of the technology world, but Sun sees things differently, Schwartz said.

"Our fundamental belief is that Wal-Mart has a much better shot at being the Wal-Mart of technology world," Schwartz said.

Sun is also working to boost software support for the version of Solaris that runs on "x86" chips, such Intel's Xeon or AMD's Opteron. Software called Project Janus will let programs for Linux on x86 run unmodified on Solaris on x86, said John Loiacono, senior vice president of Sun's operating platforms group. The applications run at the same speed, or 5 percent slower than when running directly on Linux, Loiacono said.

Sun sells corporate users the Java Desktop System--based on SuSE Linux--at a price of $50 per employee per year, regardless of how many employees actually use the software. In addition, it sells its Java Enterprise System of server software at $100 per employee per year, a price that goes down somewhat when customers buy Sun storage gear or up when they buy programming tools.

Sun is making some headway with its server software, Schwartz said.

In the quarter ended in June 2003, Sun sold the software to five companies with a total of 44,000 employees. This quarter, the company sold it to 42 companies, with a total of 97,000 employees. And for the quarter ended in June, Sun so far has commitments to sell it to 100 companies, with a total of 142,000 employees, Schwartz said.

Java everywhere
Sun's Linux desktop software is called Java Desktop System for a reason. Sun hopes to use the Java software in conjunction with its Java Web site to become a presence among consumers. Java lets the same program run on different computers--for example, two manufacturers' cell phones--and undermines the importance of particular operating systems, such as Windows or Linux.

Sun hopes that Java will give it a brand consumers recognize widely and that its cooperative nature will help it sign partnerships with device makers leery of working with powerful incumbents, such as Microsoft.

Sun charges a royalty for mobile phone makers to put Java technology in their cell phones, but to encourage the proliferation of the Java brand, Sun offers a price break to those who incorporate the Java logo in software, on boxes or on Web sites, said Ingrid Van Den Hoogen, newly promoted to Sun vice president of software strategy marketing.

The discounts also apply to others using Java for PCs, in-dash car computers and other devices, Van Den Hoogen said. She didn't disclose how deep the discount is to device makers but said, "It's worth their while."

Although the Java Web site is key to Sun's plans, it today does little more than provide a way for people to download Java for PCs. Schwartz demonstrated a new site feature, through which a customer can buy a Java program by entering his or her phone model and phone number on the Web site.

Sun also plans to use the site as a means to distribute software to PCs, Schwartz said.