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Project MadHatter

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"Have you guessed the riddle yet?" the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

"No, I give it up," Alice replied. "What's the answer?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.
- Lewis Carroll

Sun's Desktop strategy - "Project Madhatter" - is taking shape and it dominated questions from the floor at an analyst session in San Francisco today. In charge of Madhatter is Curtis Sasaki - Sun's VP of Desktop Software - who was at Apple at the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984, led the IIGS project and then followed Steve Jobs to NeXT where he spent several years. More from Curtis in a moment.

Madhatter actually arrived in September: a small and sensible announcement, but one concealed beneath billowing clouds of gwana gwana so thick that both SFO and Oakland airports were closed briefly, as landing was considered too dangerous.

Sun simply said it will do a Linux desktop, and sell it in bundles of 100 or so. It will only target certain markets "transaction workers" - public and education and call center or retail staff, and it isn't at all a consumer ploy. Very prudent, we noted, as diving into a full on desktop war with The Beast has been many a man's folly: Ray Noorda, Mike Cowpland are two.

Jonathan Schwartz thinks Sun will be the first company to present a deployable Linux desktop with all the trimmings - the management software, applications (iPlanet) and the channel - to Fortune 500 customers. Since no one else of Sun's size is trying to do this, and IBM and Hewlett Packard are Windows licensees and are doing Linux everywhere except on the desktop, he's probably right. At least on this scale.

Microsoft "threatened to sue" own customers

He had a few zingers to hand.

Microsoft - and this is an amazing claim - had threatened to sue its own customers if they used GPL software. Really?

"I've spoken to general counsels of corporations who've been told that their business critical information systems will be released to the public if they use open source." That's the GPL as virus/cancer line Microsoft had been taking in public, and now realizes is a terrible mistake. If anyone can corroborate this we'd like to know: and there's a logical fallacy which may be Microsoft's or it might be Jonathan's, because the two don't necessarily follow.

Schwartz had also "heard" that HP wouldn't buy BEA "because Microsoft wouldn't like it." Since being bought by HP is the kiss of death for any decent middleware company, they probably would like it, but that's enough innuendo.

(What does it all mean? Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter never answered his own riddles.)

He was on firmer ground - and it's something most of us can corroborate to some extent - with his claim that Microsoft's enormous profits are causing great resentment amongst IS managers. Bumping up prices in a recession at every one else's expense is not going to be popular - but only Sun is at liberty to make this point. (That doesn't mean you should stop sending us corroboration, thank you).

So the MadHatter "stack" will be GNOME, Evolution and StarOffice (plus Java and MetaFrame or Tarantella if need be). In addition to the N1 provisioning software for server deployments (details in 30 to 60 days said Schwartz), there'll be management software to ease patching and upgrades.

Curtis reminded us later that Helix [now Ximian]- whose Red Carpet software does this job - is a partner. "We pay them to do stuff," he said. He said Sun's Linux management software is 'Blue Ink', a new code name to us. [But probably BlueLink - Cobalt's update software].

When I asked Schwartz if customers wouldn't just be trading in one TCO hairball for another - Linux fixes still require plenty of management - he told us the Sun Ray was an excellent solution. Now I'm not at my best in the mornings ever, but even I could tell that was an answer to a different question. We later learnt that some mobile workers will need to work offline, but since the software (Evolution/StarOffice/GNOME) will be the same across Solaris and Linux, it doesn't matter. Sun knows how to look after stuff in the cloud, which is where it belongs. Fair enough.

Curtis described Red Hat's management software as proprietary and that required organizations to step outside the firewall, and Sun's wouldn't do this. They're partners, with Sun's first Linux essentially being Red Hat Advanced Server rebadged, but this is direct competition.

OpenSolaris?
Schwartz even suggested that Solaris might become LSB-compliant. We'll run this past some of our Solaris sysadmin friends for a reaction. With so many happy Sun customers chugging away on Solaris 2.x or even SunOS the prospect of change might cause some consternation. On the other hand, most of these sysadmins run Linux anyway for fun, so it could equally be welcomed. Such exercises are like iffy wigs: I'm old enough to remember DEC rebranding VMS as OpenVMS in a wheezing attempt to look cool and hep, just like the new Open Systems boys. DEC added a POSIX layer that no one ever used anyway, but the name stuck.

One reader this evening had this to say about the move:- "This is like taking a pure breed dog and intentionally cross breeding with a mutt. Solaris has a solid SYSV heritage, and SunOS was as true to BSD as anything. Why they would mate it to a demonic half breed like Linux is beyond me," he writes. "Why? Because every thing is where it is supposed to be, things like system calls and arguments dont randomly change."

NeXT stop

Curtis has had some of the most interesting jobs in the Valley - between NeXT and Sun he was at General Magic. Which popularized the term "communicator" even before Nokia did (they launched theirs in 1996).

What did he learn from General Magic?

"That it's hard to work with consumer electronics companies!" he said. "They're very demanding."

Naturally he was a Mac OS X user, it's more fun than XP any day he reckoned, and had some nice details of the early Apple days, which we now remember we promised not to use.

The vexed subject of StarOffice came up, and Sun people always ask me why I have such a downer on it. I reply that it's a really good thing, it gives people lots of choice, it supports lots of languages including Thai, Arabic and Hebrew, and that's usually enough to avoid sharing my subjective opinion: which is that I'd rather be scarred with red hot pokers than have to use such an ugly piece of software. It's so slow. So random - so un Sun-like.
(Even Sun's flops - like the NeWS printer we affectionately mock now and again - have a point. [NeWS remembered here])

Using an Office suite is like cross-dressing: I guess some people have a need to do it, but it's possible to get through life without actually having done it yourself. And in any case, this is something Microsoft does better. Or used to, when it still listened to its users.

There are lots of open source software suites - I mentioned Gobe (which is now GPL), Curtis mentioned KOffice - but he said most weren't mature enough to cut the mustard.

Curtis had been to China, and said it had a huge potential for Linux, and PRC government representatives were genuinely committed to building an open source infrastructure. (Or getting cheap stuff, I thought)

Weren't all the ventures party-owned? Not at all, he said - they were really thinking like capitalists.

Not too long ago unproductive workers in one of the first manufacturing plants would be thrown down a ravine, pour l''encouragement des autres. That practice has stopped, we now believe. Which is a good thing if they're going to be equipped with StarOffice.

"Comrade Lee! I see your output of spreadsheets has been very low this morning!"

"No, no! It is not my fault, but the fault of the Sun Starmicrosystems software!" - sound of hard disk thrashing away - "I'm still trying to get the first one loaded…"

Well, there's a motivator. ®

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