We all remember the excitement when AIB announced its plan to migrate its desktop systems to Sun's Java Desktop System (JDS). Touted as a triumph for Linux and its arrival in the IT market (especially the desktop market), many people told me that it was a great boost.

I was never convinced.

For instance, the license that JDS comes with is quite onerous. While sticking to the requirements of the GPL, which Sun has to use in order to include the Linux kernel, it skirts its spirit with aplomb, and quite a great deal of obscure legalese too.

And then there's this: more so than any other Linux-based operating system "distribution", JDS avoids, as much as is possible, mentioning Linux. Mainstream, and not-especially-clued-in technical, news outlets will hype the Linux connection, but Sun won't. For example, on the main web page for the Java Desktop System, there is (at the time of typing) no mention of Linux. Why?

My belief is that Sun intends not to use Linux as the base for JDS in time. Solaris, Sun's own UNIX-based operating system, has recently been released under an open source license. This is great news, especially since Sun is engaging with the Free Software community on how to do it in a manner that garners respect from the community. There are a few problems for Sun with this course, and it no doubt is hoping for help from the Free Software community in solving them:

  • Solaris has been developed for two CPU types, Intel and SPARC. As I understand it, it has yet to be ported or certified on others like Power, AMD and embedded chips like ARM and those from Motorola.
  • Solaris has been developed for architectures and other hardware under Sun's control. For each deployment of Solaris, either on SPARC or Intel, the box itself has been built by Sun: it is a hardware company as well, y'know. Not noted for its desktop offerings (though I remember fondly working for a few years on a SPARC 20 workstation!), Solaris has yet to be certified on standard commodity hardware builds.

And already, the community started to take up these challenges. If a reasonable number of developers download, build and test OpenSolaris, these problems will be solved. And if enough interest is generated, they will be solved before too long.

When that time comes, Sun will have an operating system that fits onto general-purpose hardware which it can then use for JDS instead of the Linux kernel and the GNU utilities that make up the back-bone of all GNU/Linux distributions. This will be made easier because Sun promotes the JavaTM brand far more than the presence of the Linux kernel and the GNU OS utilities. "Yes, it did use Linux at one time, but we provide an open desktop operating environment, not a Linux distribution."

Both in the spirit and letters of the Free Software community, this is perfectly fair. Sun is using Free Software for its most fundamental purpose: to fill a gap without strings being attached. However, it's temporary because Sun is also setting about using its own resources to fill that gap. In doing so, though, Sun is contributing to the pool of Free Software as well, so not all is cynical.

This doesn't altogether fit very well with Sun's actions and statements of the past year or so. Settling with Microsoft by agreeing a "patent regime", promoting open standards over open source (in concert, it seems, with Microsoft), the JDS Release 2 licenses and Jonathan Schwartz' ("President, Chief Operating Officer,Sun Microsystems, Inc.") blog entries all suggest that Sun regards Free Software as competition (which it is) that is determine to ruin companies like it (which it isn't – Free Software doesn't care in the least about how well or otherwise businesses like Sun and Microsoft do). Some might see the release of Solaris as Free Software as a softenening of Sun's position. I am leaning that way, but, as I say, I'm not convinced.

Éibhear