Cost of replacing Windows may mute Sun challenge

Sun Microsystems' head-on challenge this week to Microsoft's Windows and Office products could be muted by the cost of replacing Microsoft's desktop system.

At this week's SunNetworks conference, Sun Microsystems Inc. made an aggressive challenge to Microsoft's Office suite by releasing its own desktop package with a low price plus a promise to be virus free.

But despite customer complaints about the high costs of owning Microsoft software, migration and support costs could make the decision to move away from Windows and the Office suite a difficult one, experts said.

Sun's desktop initiative, formerly called Mad Hatter, is now called the Sun Java Desktop System. The software, which includes a suite of client applications, runs on any Intel x86 or Sun SPARC-based hardware, with Solaris or Linux as the operating system.

Customers get Sun's StarOffice 7 suite plus security authentication through Sun's Java Card. The software sells for $100 per desktop.

In Sun's favor, industry watchers said, enterprise customers continue to be ticked off at Microsoft. The company's desktop software is complex, difficult to manage and easy to break, whether someone is trying to hack it or whether the customer breaks something when trying to install it, said David Friedlander, an analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm.

But that must be balanced against the even higher cost of ripping out and replacing a highly distributed infrastructure. There will also be a lot of user concerns about the amount of change required or the eliminated benefits of having everyone in the company on Microsoft's XP, Friedlander said.

"Migrating is never cheap, under the best of circumstances," he said. "The platform is familiar and the desktop support team typically has no familiarity with any platform other than Windows. So you are talking about a significant retraining expense to staff and end users."

For many customers, a low price tag would not be enough to consider switching to another platform, although they like the idea that they would be less vulnerable to attacks. "We are a HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] environment, so we are always looking for something more secure," said Ted Hacker, a network administrator at St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh.

But whether it's enough to push those customers over the edge is another story. "It would be a long jump for us," said Hacker. St. Clair has Windows desktops but also a mixed enterprise with a heavy investment in IBM servers. "I think if a hospital was using Solaris, it might be eager to test this."

Sun is caught in a tight spot, said Rob Helm, a research director at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. IT spending is still depressed, and Intel servers are eating away at Sun's core hardware business. Now Sun is trying to capitalize on its desktop assets, including StarOffice, which it acquired and has yet to make money on.

"I don't think this latest offering has changed the total cost of ownership for a Linux-based desktop," Helm said. "At most, it might cause some companies to consider using something other than Office on machines that don't make much use of Office now."

Helm said some companies may benefit by evaluating Sun's software as a bargaining chip when negotiating software contracts.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

News: Sun unveils new Java systems, pricing

News: Sun to unveil software to replace Windows

Resources: Visit the Desktop Deployment Info Center

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