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Gwana-gwana landslide buries Sun Linux

Air war delivers lethal payload

Analysis What are we to make of Sun's Linux Desktop announcement? We inadvertently provided the answer ourselves talking to Sun executives yesterday. What a good idea it is, we mused, to revive the vendor show: the press arrives in droves, and for a few hours at least, you have their undivided attention.

The trick is to sneak something onto the wires, even though we will all have forgotten exactly what it was they said in a few months time. This worked a treat yesterday: Sun's plan to strike at Microsoft's desktop heartland made the leader column of the New York Times, which people round here seem to think is a very big deal. (The truth is somewhat different, as we'll see: Sun isn't so much striking at the heartland as making low-level offshore flying runs in planes equipped to broadcast rude noises).

As a residual benefit, many other parts of Sun's business bask in attention they wouldn't otherwise have received. For example today is "N1" day - and we nursed hopes of seeing a recreation of King's Cross station and Islington's Union Chapel as a tribute to London's most cinematic postcode - but that's a different N1. We'll also hear about elliptical cryptography, and much else too.

How HP, which has a $4 billion R&D budget and sets the pace in several research areas including memory, storage and imaging - would love to have this attention. Sun's secret is to fight an air war with big ideas - few of which may ever come to fruition - designed to capture hearts and minds and position Sun as a bleeding edge, visionary kind of place. Down on the battlefield, the warring parties fight each with the same gwana-gwana, and how HP and IBM despair that Sun customers keep returning to the company when HP and IBM can often provide superior kit.

But that's the value of the air war, you see. And Sun fights a great air war because it makes Sun a fun company to write about.

Destination: Gwanaland

Where it falls apart, however, is when the Gwana-gwana obliterates the content. What is Gwana-gwana?

Gwana-gwana is all the stuff that isn't useful. Useful stuff includes details such as utility pricing programs, failover times for HA clusters, and pin compatibility. By contrast, Gwana-gwana includes "go to market solutions" and earnest expressions of "meeting customer requirements". Gwana-gwana is the sound of a trade hack and a tech executive both snoring, only one is supposed to be talking, while the other one is supposed to be listening.

Sun indulges in Gwana-gwana along with everyone else, and Shahin Khan - far and away our favorite Chief Competitive Officer at any systems company beginning with the letter 'S' [here's why]- appears to have exclusive mining rights on Gwana-Gwana at Sun, and we suspect, runs some fiendish internal Gwana-distribution racket, much like Milo Minderbender in Catch-22.

(Milo/Shahin was hosting what Sun described as a "Competitive Lunch" today - but not having taken part in a speed-eating contest since fourth grade, we declined, citing fitness as an excuse).

Sun's Linux Desktop turns out to be prime-time Gwana-gwana. Sun will release a distro at some point in 2003 - can't say when; and it'll be competitively priced - can't say how much, but it will be cheaper than whatever we reckon Windows costs. Er, that's it for now.

N1 also looks like Gwana-gwana right now, for there's nothing as concrete as say, a Java Language Specification underpinning it. Sun thinks that data center resource allocation will look different in the future; but every other systems company thinks so too. They're all right. But to indulge in any more on the subject now is to participate in the Gwana-supply chain - it just isn't terribly useful.

The truth of the Sun Linux desktop initiative isn't as dramatic as the pre-launch hype, but then if you're a Sun shareholder you'll probably be relieved to hear that. Sun isn't doing a Novell: it just looks like it. Sun's Linux distro, one source told us yesterday, is just Red Hat and patches, only Sun can't call it "Red Hat and Patches". Despite years of air war bravado, Sun hasn't got to where it is by picking battles it can't win.

(As Sun's chief software architect Rob Gingell reminded us yesterday, and James Gosling chipped in with a "well, most of the time", no doubt ruefully thinking of old NeWS.).

Ray Noorda learned that the hard way. Sun's Linux should stand a chance of succeeding in education and call centres, the demographics it has targeted, if only because Microsoft's rapacious, and short-sighted licensing policies have priced them out of key home markets.

We also learned that although Sun simply wants to move batches of 100 licenses at a time, it will encourage its resellers to pitch for smaller deals. Sun doesn't really want to get into the OEM scrap with IBM, HP and YLWBD (your local white box dealer) at all, and the crucial part of the equation is that it sells enough servers to make it worthwhile. (The Linux PCs use Sun server authentication, and a JavaCard reader attached to the client). If it doesn't, the initiative will go the way of the ("What FREEDOM Looks Like!") JavaStation [Google cache][Take Me Back!] and NeWSPrint

As we've pointed out before, Sun is really much more pragmatic than it is Quixotic. ®

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