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Linux laptop – a prince among young frogs

Tadpole goes Intel, hits on Sun for software

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After kissing a few frogs with some heavyweight laptops that didn't quite transform into princely sales, Tadpole is hoping for more success with its latest product family, Talin, writes Bloor Research analyst Rob Bamforth. Tadpole has taken its longstanding relationship with Sun technologies a step further, as this family of Linux based laptops is the first to sport a fully supported mobile installation of the Sun Java Desktop System.

The Talin laptops will eventually offer a broad range of portable specifications. The first to be launched is a middle-of-the range model, Talin 15, offering a Pentium 4 processor running up to 3GHz with a 15inch high resolution display and built-in Wi-Fi. This will soon be followed by a lightweight, 3.5lb ultra-portable and somewhat later, a high-end 17inch-display version for power users. This may be Tadpole's first Intel laptop, but if the price is right and the hardware quality good, there's no reason these products should not be considered alongside existing portable business workhorses. The real differentiation is the platform software.

The Sun Java Desktop System gives the laptop family a portable enterprise desktop solution with a client environment based on open source components and industry standards. The heart is the Linux operating system and GNOME desktop environment. On top of that, the applications for general office use are Sun's StarOffice productivity suite, the open source Mozilla web browser, Ximian Evolution mail and calendar. Needless to say, it also includes Sun's Java runtime with the Java 2 Standard Edition.

All together this combination makes the Java Desktop System a viable Microsoft Windows alternative, with read and write compatibility to Microsoft file formats. Whilst the specific look and feel may differ slightly from the current generation of Microsoft products, it would not be a steep learning curve for most users. The only minor concern is the completeness of compatibility with Microsoft formats, but this has improved with successive versions, and again is likely to be unnoticeable for the majority of users. User inertia, however, is likely to be the biggest drag on acceptance.

Whether this will be good enough for Tadpole is not clear. The company has been struggling for a number of years, and so needs some strong sales success. It's certainly good news for Sun. Despite a long technology relationship with Tadpole, the previous Solaris/SPARC laptops have only really sold to a narrow audience. Often it was those selling Sun based software or solutions and needing a portable demo unit. As a company who is trying to redefine both itself and the software agenda, Sun is likely to be very welcoming and supportive of the Talin.

Sun's original goal in touting SPARC as an open, even IEEE, standard was to generate lots of clones and a variety of compatible machines from a number of manufacturers, but this didn't happen. Most of those companies who tried to follow with SPARC clones are now long forgotten. Tadpole by diversification into the still specialist field of any laptop UNIX survived, but only just. The resurgence of interest in UNIX in the form of Linux has so far been slow to help it.

However the strength of interest in what is now a viable Linux on the desktop, coupled with growing resentment from many businesses to paying a high tax to Microsoft for their standard office tools, makes this new offering of broader interest. It may be time to risk kissing a few frogs.

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