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Sun tries to lure MS desktop users with sweets and software

Sun does microchips, and evidently it does chocolate chips. The latter is part of the company's strategy to woo Microsoft users away from Windows and over to Sun's open-source desktop.

When Dan Swihart came to work on Wednesday of this week, there was a tin of chocolate chip cookies waiting for him.

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  • Cookies anyone?
  • A sweet gesture from his significant other? No. This can of carbs came courtesy of Sun Microsystems Inc. -- along with a little note that said "food for thought."

    Swihart, a system administrator at Emergency 24, a Chicago company that monitors burglar alarms, is a Microsoft customer. Almost all of the major back-end systems and applications at his company, as well as all of the desktops run on Windows. But Sun wants Swihart to rethink his desktop strategy.

    Emergency 24 is the type of business that Sun is wooing to its open-source desktop, which was introduced Sept. 18 at the SunNetwork 2002 Conference in San Francisco. Sun's client desktop includes hardware, Java Card technology and software for identity, portal and messaging. It relies on several open-source software efforts including Linux, Mozilla, OpenOffice, Evolution and the GNU Project.

    Users are also able to interoperate with Microsoft Word, and with Evolution they get an Outlook-like client that can work with Microsoft Exchange messaging software.

    The bundle, which Sun is angling to sell as a low-cost alternative to a Windows desktop, will be available in 2003 with prototype systems coming soon, company executives said.

    Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at International Data Corp., the Framingham, Mass., market research firm, said Sun is aiming for what he calls the transactional worker. These are people who use computers by necessity to do their jobs, as opposed to hard-core IT workers. They are doctors, nurses, attorneys and others, he said. "They are not computer professionals, nor do they want to be," he said.

    Indeed, Emergency 24 workers are not scientists who come from a Unix background, developers who tend to use the platform on which they will deploy their products, or "knowledge workers" who use an operating system that supports the applications they use for their jobs.

    Employees at Emergency 24 are hooked into a network that monitors residential and commercial alarms nationwide. Hundreds of calls come in each hour, all of which are dispatched to local police departments.

    Kusnetzky said that though the Linux market will welcome Sun's efforts, he cautions that Sun must deliver quickly, because what the company plans to do is similar to what other vendors can do. Linux is available from about 147 distributors, according to IDC, and it runs on any X86 computer, as well as other hardware. OpenOffice runs on a majority of these platforms too.

    Sun is packaging an open source option for customers and hoping to gain additional business by providing support and selling peripherals, Kusnetzky said. "But if Sun doesn't deliver something fast, they are just opening the door to those who can say 'we can do the same thing now.'"

    Swihart said he likes the idea of using an open-source desktop, but the fact that his business guarantees 100% uptime would make a migration "d**n near impossible." The company currently has hundreds of seats running different versions of Windows.

    Other IT administrators are wary of using an open-source desktop because they are concerned about the levels of support they would receive. At this stage of development, it will take far more than chocolate chip cookies to make them consider switching.

    "They'd have to make me some big promises," said John Logan, an IT manager at ClearStream Technologies Ltd. in Queensbury, N.Y.

    Logan said that he wishes he didn't have to use Microsoft for each desktop, but not doing so would hurt user productivity.

    "A word processing or spreadsheet application would have problems interacting with other software," he said. "You also might not get the same selection of fonts you would get from Windows."

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