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Sun shows its hand with enterprise software and Linux desktop

Orion and Mad Hatter priced

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Sun NC03 Sun Microsystems' two big software bets go into play Tuesday, as it reveals new pricing models for the Sun ONE enterprise software stack and a Linux desktop.

For months, Sun has hummed and hawed over the final price of the software it planned to bundle with Solaris as part of a project code-named Orion. Sun settled on a cost of $100 per employee for all of the software in what it now calls the Java Enterprise System. This collection of code includes Solaris along with products such as the Sun ONE application server, web server, directory server and clustering software.

To go along with the enterprise software, Sun is releasing the Linux desktop code-named Mad Hatter under the Java Desktop System brand. The operating system ships with GAIM, Evolution, StarOffice, Mozilla and Real Player. This software will also cost $100 per employee on its own or $150 as part of a package with the Sun Enterprise System.

Sun also plans to unveil similar "systems" for mobile computing and Java cards later on.

There are few surprises with any of these announcements. Sun talked up Orion and Mad Hatter for months, exposing the vast majority of details behind the projects We'd narrowed down the pricing to between $100 and $200 per employee and just needed the final seal of approval from the McNealy tribe. Now we have it.

But just seeing the price on paper still delivers a shock, particularly with the set of enterprise software.

Sun is desperate to increase the adoption of some key products. Be it the application server, grid software or clustering, Sun is trying to undercut the competition by crushing per processor and number of user pricing models. Imagine a company such as Google with relatively few employees but tons of users. It could take on a large enterprise stack for around $100,000.

Competitors say this kind of pricing model points to a software strategy gone wrong. Sun is making a last gasp to gain share in key areas and keep the market presence of Solaris high. Many analysts question whether or not a big price cut will pull users from middleware leaders such IBM and BEA.

Sun says it already signed 10 customers to use the Java Enterprise System. Some names will be released during the Sun Network conference being held this week.

For these Jave Enterprise System customers, Sun will ship the majority of its enterprise software portfolio with Solaris on a quarterly basis. Sun has long delivered Solaris updates every 90 days and thinks customers will favor this regular method of delivery for the rest of its products. Sun claims that the $100 per employee fee ensures that all of the software will work together without fail.

The bundling scheme resembles Microsoft's work done on the desktop. Sun, of course, doesn't have a monopoly and won't enjoy that advantage. It will, however, be able to play off the relative strength of Solaris in the Unix server market.

Sun is trying to shift the weight of big IT purchases in favor of the hardware, which is a smart play. Should Orion take off, companies such as HP and Dell that don't have their own software stacks may feel the pinch. But this is a big maybe.

Sun is missing a couple of software pieces with the Java Enterprise System for Linux but eventually plans to have both the Linux and Solaris releases on the same schedule. Over time, Sun will add more and more software packages to the Java Enterprise System bundle.

The Java Desktop System is a little less interesting and a little less of a gamble.

Building a relatively easy-to-use Linux desktop isn't a new concept. Vendors trying to pull this off have come and gone and come again.

Sun's pitch revolves around the work done to make sure various open source software packages work well together on its desktop. The Linux OS is meant to serve as a Windows replacement at large companies with workers who preform fixed-functions types of tasks. "We're cheaper, we're more secure and doggonnit people like Linux" is the motto here.

Sun is releasing StarOffice 7.0 along with the desktop. The revamped productivity suite is said to be more stable and better equipped to handle Microsoft files.

The desktop effort as a whole takes a shot at Microsoft - something Sun loves to do - and puts a major hardware vendor behind the Linux PC push. In this position, Sun officially wins the weirdest relationship with Linux award for all hardware vendors.

On the server side, Sun would much prefer users pick Solaris/Sparc or Solaris x86 before going the Linux route. The rest of the major vendors are happy for a Linux server sale to eat into Solaris' dominant Unix market share. Sun is, however, backing the Linux desktop effort much hardware than its Windows-dependent rivals - HP, IBM and Dell.

Sun loves to go the opposite direction of its competitors and the Java Systems fit with this strategy.

There is likely to be quite a bit more to come from Sun throughout the week, especially from the hardware team.

On day one of the Sun Network show, however, the company is trying to prove that it's a serious software contender. Java is nice and all, but it doesn't really pay the bills. Maybe this Java System thing will work.

Sun says it can do the needed research and development to keeps the software products fresh, if it can win just a few Java Enterprise licenses. This should come as no surprise since Sun has been subsidizing the software teams for years. Gains of any kind would be gravy.

The Java Enterprise System could revamp Sun's software position or leave it looking for a new big bet. But the pressure is on Sun more than ever to make this hand pay off. ®

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