Sun Microsystems has announced plans to provide an open source PC to companies seeking a lower cost alternative to Microsoft-based desktops.
Chief executive Scott McNealy unveiled the initiative - called Project Mad Hatter - at the vendor's SunNetwork user conference in San Francisco.
Sun is not planning to sell the product as a general-purpose PC in direct competition to existing suppliers. McNealy said it would provide a "compelling but limited-use environment" for users whose main need from a desktop is for web browser access plus local productivity tools such as word processing and email.
Executive vice president of software, Jonathan Schwartz, said the Linux-based PC is targeted at customers such as call centres, government agencies, academic institutions or bank branches where a lower cost, secure desktop is needed for accessing portal-based business applications - such as order processing - that are running on a server.
"The target market is folks who need a computer to access applications. If you're a software developer for example, it's not for you," he said.
Sun's own research has estimated that 38 per cent of the desktop market will consider a rival to Windows that provides the sort of limited functionality offered by the Mad Hatter desktop.
The open source PC will appeal to companies with users that require some local processing capability and more functionality than a thin client but do not want a fully configured Windows-based system.
The controversy over Microsoft's new Software Assurance licensing scheme has added to Sun's conviction that there is a market for the product.
"We've got nothing to lose. If Software Assurance hadn't turned up we probably wouldn't be talking about this," said Schwartz.
Sun will sell the PC not as single units but as a package of 100 desktops plus a Sun Unix server with smartcard security to access the system. Each user will have an identity card to swipe through a card reader to log on.
The Linux PC will come with the Gnome desktop management environment, Mozilla browser, StarOffice productivity tools and Evolution, an email application that is similar to Microsoft Outlook.
Customers will be able to use existing PC equipment if they choose, or Sun will supply the hardware from other manufacturers.
"We'll buy from the same people as Dell. The PC is never going to enter a Sun factory," said Schwartz.
Schwartz added that prototypes of the open source PC will be available for demonstration within 60 days, and that the final product should be available in the first quarter of next year.
Sun has not yet decided how the 100-user package will be priced, but all the software will be free.
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