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Sun pushes Unix workstation price below $1,000

The wildfire for super-cheap PCs is now smoldering, but Sun plans to release a Unix workstation that indicates the company is still feeling the heat.

The wildfire for super-cheap PCs has been reduced to smoldering embers, but Sun Microsystems has developed a Unix workstation that indicates the server giant is still feeling the heat.

Sun will announce Tuesday a Unix workstation that costs $995 in its most basic configuration--an all-time low for Sun or any other company in the market. The new Sun Blade 100 will cost more if customers also want features such as a monitor or a 3D graphics card, but the price is still half that of the previous least-expensive model, the Ultra 5.

Unix workstations historically have offered higher performance than their cousins using cheaper Intel parts and the Windows operating system, but they're under pressure as Dell Computer and others have released ever-more-powerful Wintel competitors.

Sun countered the Windows-Intel workstation with its Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 models in 1998. Those products sold well enough that research firm IDC credited them for an increase in the number of Unix workstations shipped in 2000.

While Sun traditionally aims at keeping the Wintel world at bay, it also has its eyes on Unix workstation competitors. IBM's entry-level machine has a bare-bones price of more than $10,000.

"We were the first to go below $10,000, $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000. We've been counting down," said Shahin Khan, head of marketing for Sun's computer systems. "Today is when we go below $1,000."

Workstations typically are used by programmers, graphics designers, financial analysts, engineers and other people who need high performance. Unix workstations usually use 64-bit CPUs, which enable the use of large amounts of memory and faster mathematical calculations in some cases.

Sun already has sold several thousand of the new Sun Blade 100s, including more than 150 to the University of Guadalajara, Khan said. That's a different scenario from the debut of the higher-end Sun Blade 1000, a system whose demand Sun mis-forecast.

"The Sun Blade 1000 is still capacity constrained," Khan said. That system uses the new UltraSparc III chip.

The Ultra 5 and 10 are superceded by the Sun Blade 100, which uses the low-end UltraSparc IIe processor running at 500MHz, said Fred Kohout, director of marketing for Sun's technical market products group. The Sun Blade 100 has Universal Serial Bus ports, high-speed IEEE 1394 FireWire ports, more room for PCI cards, support for 2GB of memory instead of 512MB, and support for two hard disks instead of one.

However, the older Ultra 5 and 10 models won't be discontinued, Kohout said, because the newer models come only with version 8 of Sun's Solaris operating system and some customers still use version 7.

The biggest market for the system is programmers, and Sun has a $3,495 package tailored for that market, Kohout said. Programmers are key for Sun: The more people who know how to write software for Solaris, the better the odds that a Sun system will be able to do what a customer eventually will need.

Sun acknowledges that workstation users still often need to use Microsoft programs such as Word. For this task, Sun offers a plug-in card that is essentially an entire separate computer. In the past, the card has used an AMD chip, but the newer $495 model comes with an Intel Celeron chip, Kohout said.