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McNealy reveals Sun open source strategy

Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy last week expanded on his company's recently announced plans to sell Linux-based PCs during a keynote address at the company's SunNetwork 2002 conference. The desktop machines will run Sun's tweaked implementation of the Linux OS, be bundled with other open-source software and include Sun's smart-card readers, McNealy said. He promised that the systems will start shipping sometime next year.

Sun plans to sell the so-called ''purple box'' systems to enterprise customers in 100-unit lots. Although pricing isn't yet set, Sun software Vice President Jonathan Schwartz estimated a price tag of about $300,000 to buy and administer the systems for five years. A comparable package of Windows white box PCs would cost just over $1 million, Schwartz claimed.

Along with the Linux OS, the Sun-branded machines will come bundled with the Mozilla Web browser, OpenOffice desktop software, Ximian's Evolution e-mail and calendar software and the Gnome user interface, officials said.

Sun introduced its first computers running Linux -- the Cobalt LX50 servers -- in August at the LinuxWorld Expo. At that time, McNealy said Sun would soon offer a Linux PC to compete with Microsoft.

Sun's Linux strategy is unfolding in a shrinking market for high-end servers, still the company's bread-and-butter offering. Although Sun continues to dominate the Unix market with more than 50% share by revenue, according to market researcher IDC, that market is expected to continue contracting. Meanwhile, demand for Linux servers appears to be on a very different trajectory as IDC projects Linux server sales to more than triple from $80 million in 2001 to $280 million by 2006.

Although it hard to draw a straight line between Sun's open source activities and a profit center, Sun execs insist that it's a good thing for the company.

''We recognize that, by creating a win-win marketplace, Sun gains more success in the future,' said Sun's chief technology evangelist, Simon Phipps. ''It's about supporting technologies that create markets in which Sun can succeed''

''Sun has been involved in open source almost from our birth,'' Sun's open source ''diva,'' Danese Cooper said, maintaining that ''The truth is, [in recent years] we have done more to support open source and give it legs than just about anybody.''

''Of course, some people see us and they say, here comes Golliath, and they worry that we're going to screw them in the end,'' Cooper added. ''When the open source community heard that we were charging for Star Office, and they thought we were proprietizing Open Office, they were very upset with us. I can't tell you how many times I've responded to e-mails and typed out, 'Open Office code can never be taken away from you. The license says so. We might stop hosting it, but it is mirrored in a 112 different places.' When they realized that we were playing by the rules, they relax.''

Sun's Star Office productivity suite is a distribution of the Open Office, just as Red Hat is a distribution of Linux. The Open Office open source project now comprises millions of lines of code, and ports to 15 platforms are in development. Cooper said that other groups are working on other Open Office distros in Europe and one in China. The Chinese distro is called ''Red Office,'' she said. Open Office is available for free at www.openoffice.org.

Phipps also said that open sourcers shouldn't worry that Sun Linux 5.0 is a new flavor of the operating system. ''It's Red Hat Linux plus the necessary patches to make it work on the LX50,'' he said. ''There were two trains of thought at Sun about what to call it. We could describe it as Red Hat with patches or as a finished item that the customer didn't have to deal with.''

''Whichever way you look at it, we are not producing a competing distribution of Linux intended to have an independent existence on its own,'' he added.

Sun also announced that it was making binary reference code for the Phase I specification implementation of Liberty available on its Experimental Stuff Web site (www.experimentalstuff.com). The Liberty spec was released a while ago by the Liberty Alliance, of which Sun is a member. Cooper described the release as ''a kind of leg-up piece of code that will be helpful with implementation.''

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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