Its debut week for Java Desktop System— a product in which Sun Microsystems Inc. has combined Linux, Mozilla, GNOME and StarOffice—creating a credible challenger to Microsoft Corp.s Windows and Office on the corporate desktop.
In eWEEK Labs tests of the final build, we found Java Desktop System (formerly code-named Mad Hatter) approachable and functional, with design tweaks to make the product match more closely to Windows for the benefit of users unfamiliar with Linux.
This is, however, a 1.0 release, so it requires a measure of caution—although of a different sort than with a proprietary software product. The components that compose JDS each have several releases behind them, but only time will tell how well Sun manages the tasks of a Linux distributor (such as processing software fixes and updates from the community and pushing them to its users).
Sun sells JDS for $100 per machine per year, or $150 per employee per year when paired with the rest of Suns enterprise software stack. Sun includes 60 days of installation and configuration support by phone or e-mail with purchase.
This price model is comparable to the cost of Ximian Inc.s GNOME-based Ximian Desktop 2, which we reviewed this summer. However, where Ximian Desktop 2 required the separate purchase of Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux or SuSE Linux AGs SuSE Linux, JDS is all-inclusive.
Suns Linux desktop also compares well in price with Red Hats Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation, which costs $179 per system per year and provides the same functionality as JDS.
Sun is new to the desktop Linux game, but it wont have to carry the entire Linux distributor load alone because JDS is based on SuSE Desktop 1, an enterprise-oriented Linux desktop distribution from Novell Inc.s newest acquisition that roughly maps to SuSEs consumer-targeted SuSE Linux 8.1 release.
Weve been impressed in the past with the quality and comprehensiveness of SuSEs system configuration tool, YaST2, and the presence of this utility is a boon for JDS. However, YaST2 has been improved in SuSE Linux 9.0 and now includes the best graphical tools weve seen so far for configuring Samba file sharing.
Opting for SuSEs enterprise release as a base for JDS makes sense for stability and support reasons, but itll make acquiring new software trickier than with more widely used Linux distributions. Binary packages of Linux software tend to be built for the latest versions of popular Linux distributions such as Red Hats Fedora Core 1, MandrakeSoft S.A.s Mandrake 9.2 and SuSE 9.0.
However, balancing the need for product stability against the network effects of popularity is a challenge with which all enterprise-targeted Linux distributions must grapple.
Java Desktop System
Suns Java Desktop System is a capable and easy-to-use desktop competitor to Microsoft Windows and Office thats based on free-software components. Selling a Linux desktop system is new territory for Sun, but the software pieces it has chosen are solid, and Suns done a good job assembling them. At $100 per desktop per year, the Java Desktop System costs much less than a comparable system from Microsoft. JDS price is also lower than Red Hats enterprise offering.
EVALUATION SHORT LIST• Microsofts Windows XP • Apple Computer Inc.s Mac OS X 10.3 • Red Hats Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3
Still missing from the JDS picture are system management tools, but Sun officials said these tools are on the way.
For now, JDS depends on the system updater included with SuSE, which weve been pleased with in previous tests.
As with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 Workstation and with the Ximian desktop, the graphical interface for JDS comes courtesy of GNOME. Suns Linux desktop runs Version 2.2 of GNOME, which is one version behind GNOMEs latest, 2.4 release.
Although we found the newer GNOME version to be a bit faster in our tests, it was one of the lower-profile differences between the two releases that hung us up while testing the JDS. In GNOME 2.4, the directory where desktop items are stored is a regular folder called Desktop. In 2.2, the version that JDS includes, the desktop directory is called .gnome-desktop and is hidden by default.
As a result, the desktop is invisible as a place for saving files through Mozilla or StarOffice, and it doesnt show up as a location in the Nautilus file manager unless the application is set to show hidden files.
We worked around this issue simply enough by creating a symlink called “Desktop” to the .gnome-desktop directory. However, the invisible-desktop-folder issue will likely confuse new users.
Sun has modified the Nautilus tool bar to include a link to a Documents directory rather than to a users home directory, as is typical. The home directory contains settings and program files that basic users dont have to access, so linking to a Documents folder makes more sense.
Theres a link to the Documents folder on the JDS desktop, along with This Computer and Network Places links, that makes the JDS desktop look and function more like Windows.
We could browse through Windows (via Samba) and NFS shares through the Network Places screen, and we could create links to Samba, NFS, Webdav and FTP locations here as well. We had to re-enter our user name and password information each time we visited these places, though, and wed like to see a facility for securely caching this information.
Nautilus in JDS also contains a facility for turning folders into NFS shares by right-clicking on them, but this feature was not working in the build we tested. Sun officials said a fix for this bug will be available in an update; wed also like to see a similar facility created for defining Samba shares because Windows is not capable of browsing NFS shares.
Suns added a new task-bar element to its version of GNOME that mimics the blinking-green-lights Ethernet monitor that users will recognize from Windows. Its a small addition, but it makes the environment more familiar, and its handy for figuring out basic information such as your IP address and network device MAC address.
JDS ships with StarOffice 7, which has impressed us with its capability as a productivity suite and compatibility with Microsoft Office during long-term testing.
For Web browsing, JDS ships with Mozilla 1.4, which, with its pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing and faithful HTML rendering, has consistently outperformed Internet Explorer in eWEEK Labs tests.
JDS helpfully comes preconfigured with key plug-ins, including Suns Java virtual machine, RealNetworks Inc.s RealPlayer and Macromedia Inc.s Flash player. Red Hats all-GPL (GNU Public License) offerings, in contrast, lack these nonfree but vital components.
JDS lacks a plug-in for playing Windows Media or QuickTime videos, although both may be played on Linux systems using the free-software media player Xine.
Suns Linux desktop ships with Gaim, the popular multiprotocol instant messaging client. But, interestingly, the Gaim version thats included lacks support for Microsofts MSN network.
JDS includes Ximians Evolution 1.4.5 for e-mail, contacts and calendaring. This version of Evolution works with Suns Sun ONE back-end services, but we did not test this functionality.
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Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]