Solaris and the desktop market

I attended Sun's Software All-hands meeting by Rich Green (vice president of Software) two days ago and was excited to hear him say that Sun's future depends on competing more "in the center". I believe he suggested that Sun needs to focus more on meeting our competitors in their own markets. Since I work on the JDS desktop, I was hoping this would mean more opportunities to focus on the desktop market. So, at the end of the meeting, I asked him about his thoughts of the this market. I was disappointed to hear him say that JDS must first succeed in the "developer desktop market" before Sun would consider it being ready to compete head-on with the more popular user desktops.

I think this sets the bar in the wrong place. Other Linux distros (Red Hat, Novell, etc.) do very well in the "developer" market. Instead of picking a market where we are competing head-on with other UNIX distros, wouldn't it be more clever to find our own niche markets where Solaris is the best fit or has a unique edge? Trusted Solaris is one (but not the only) example.

That said, Solaris is a great developer platform with tools like Sun Studio and dtrace, but developers can be a bit religious about what operating systems they like, and pushing too hard in this market could easily stir the sort of pointless flaming that comes along with it.

In my opinion, the time is ripe for a company like Sun to try to compete in the desktop market. Many people who use computers only use the following sorts of tools:

  • email (thunderbird/evolution)
  • web access (firefox)
  • chat tools (gaim)
  • word processing/spreadsheet/presentation (StarOffice/OpenOffice)
  • PDF viewing (Adobe Reader, evince)
  • image viewing/editing (gimp)

For such users (e.g. students, grandma's, etc.), a more affordable free desktop system could be a real option. Sun seems a bit better poised than most other UNIX vendors to compete in this market. I believe Sun is the only company who has an agreement with Microsoft to ship StarOffice/OpenOffice without concern of litigation, for example.

With GNOME/HAL integration coming in just a few Nevada builds, the situation improves even further with decent multimedia support (Real Media, CD/DVD burning, MP3 audio support, rhythmbox) and better desktop support for removable media, such as plugging in external hard drives, USB keys, cameras, and the like). With this improvement, no need to use the terminal to mount devices, making JDS a much more realistic end-user desktop.

I think that one thing that people often overlook is the importance of accessibility support. To sell computers to government institutions (including public schools, libraries, etc.), in the U.S. and other countries must now meet government accessibility requirements. Today, Microsoft Windows is the only other competitor in this market. On the Microsoft Windows platform, accessibility is not free. To support users who are blind or who have mobility impairment, it is necessary to spend thousands of dollars in additional software. Programs like Microsoft Word are not accessible, so special applications for users with accessibility requirements must be purchased. This means that most schools and libraries who purchase Microsoft solutions may be meeting accessibiliy requirements since the computers can be upgraded to meet requirements, but typically do not actually do these upgrades and therefore do not provide real solutions to people with disabilities.

However, with GNOME's accessibility solutions, the entire desktop is reasonably accessible without the user needing to spend any extra money. Since Sun has been the main force behind the GNOME Accessibility Project, and since Sun invests a good deal of effort in QA testing accessibility, the JDS operating system tends to support accessibility a bit better than other UNIX platforms. So it seems that the accessibility market is one that Sun could do well to explore as a niche. Also, it seems that Sun could do more to let people know that this work originated with Sun and Java, and has a real humanitarian benefit.

Furthermore, free desktops are better translated into 2nd and 3rd world languages, opening the door to new world markets, and creating new opportunities for the economically disadvantaged. It seems that the support of free and open standards to the benefit of people needing to network around the world, regardless of economic situation or physical ability, would be the sort of message that fits well with "the network is the computer" and all that.

Even if the JDS desktop never becomes a big money maker (especially compared to selling mainframe class computers), having a product out there creates all sorts of opportunities for highlighting what a great thing free/open standards are and what a poor job Microsoft does providing affordable technology for those who are disadvantaged. This opportunity will likely not last forever, since I'm sure Microsoft will be working to close this gap.

Just my thoughts...

Comments:

As a full time solaris desktop user (Dual-Head sunray to a v20Z running solaris x86), this is good news. Now if only application support was there like there is for linux. Acrobat and flash are the two that come to mind. Unfortunately, they are both very closed source. (yes, acrobat 7 is available on sparc... but the sparc boxes cost way too much for that sort of deployment. and the open source pdf viewers are not there yet. ) Speaking of SunRay's, that would be a great way to get in the door. If one small server could support dozens of desktop's via sunrays (and windows via the windows connector for those that just have to use it), I would have a good selling point. In our limited deployment of SunRay's, the main issue we are looking at is memory. X + Gnome + firefox + openoffice means 1G of ram per person to start... that makes the PC look very cheap. Working on a memory and thin client optimized stack would allow better use in a thin client environment and let the system really take off. anyway, my 0.02 worth

Posted by John on September 20, 2006 at 02:54 PM CDT #

Would you like to extend the discussion to opensolaris desktop discussion list?

Although I wholeheartly hope Solaris to become a competitive desktop, the use case you mentioned is a little on the simplified side. For example, web access is not about having a firefox, having a browser is just a beginning, today web is only a carrier of rich content, a firefox without WMV/Quicktime/Real/Flash/Shockwave support does not better than having an outdated IE3. this is where Solaris has to break through before become an appealing desktop.

Posted by Ivan Wang on September 20, 2006 at 06:01 PM CDT #

I disagree with your assesment of: Many people who use computers only use the following sorts of tools:. I'm not sure how you define "Users" in this context, however, if you are talking about typical home usrs, I would strongly disagree with your list of applications. Even my 81 year old mother uses tools like iPhoto, PrintShop etc. It will be a long, long time before the linux or Solaris desktop worlds offer real usability for the common household user for things like: Quicken TurboTax iMovie iTunes iPod support iDVD Toast Games The Sims Retrospect etc.

Posted by Jim Laurent on September 21, 2006 at 01:54 AM CDT #

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