Sun Shoots for Thin-Client Glory

Twice knocked down in the thin-client market but not out of contention, Sun Microsystems Inc. on Sept. 8 will unveil a new "information appliance" that sheds the Java-only mentality of its previous workstations.

The product is expected to be more robust than Sun's previous JavaStations and rely exclusively on Sun servers for their applications.

The biggest change for Sun, however, is that the appliance will run a variety of cross-platform applications, not just Java applications.

And Sun's pending purchase of software maker Star Division in Fremont, California, will provide the linchpin that makes its thin clients useful.

Star Division's office applications, called StarOffice, run on Windows, Unix, Solaris, Java and other platforms. And StarOffice is better than Java software at incorporating the formats of Microsoft Office applications like PowerPoint, Word and Excel.

Industry observers said software has always been a critical issue with JavaStations. "The early attempts at Java computers were doomed to failure because there just wasn't software that provided a compelling case for end users to use it," said Tom Austin, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Sun unveiled its first JavaStation in late October 1996. The US$1,000 first-edition machine had 8M bytes of RAM and ran Java-based applications.

In March 1998, Sun announced the commercial availability of the retooled JavaStation at $699. Customers, including AlliedSignal Inc. and PHP Healthcare Corp., signed up for the devices, but overall sales were slow because of the lack of applications.

Sources said Sun will position the new models as front ends for application service providers and processing and call center operations. New Mexico Mutual Casualty Co. is testing the appliances for claims processing. Litton Data Systems, Bell Atlantic Corp., British Telecommunications and the U.S. Navy's San Diego-based software development unit are also beta deployers. Those users declined interview requests.

Some industry watchers said it might be difficult for Sun to penetrate a market in which Microsoft Corp. and Citrix Systems Inc. -- which provides the thin-client operating system to run Microsoft applications -- are entrenched.

Sun will have trouble "unless they have a specific target market that will find their technology extremely useful very quickly," said Dave Friedlander, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Others said opportunities for Sun will extend beyond its own thin clients. "I'm excited about the possibility of Sun offering this as a chunk of software that every appliance [server vendor] can offer. That's what they intend to do," said Kimball Brown, an analyst at Dataquest in San Jose.

Separately, Sun this week said it has ended its project with IBM to develop a Java-based operating system for network computers. The project, started a year ago, aimed to build an operating system that would optimize thin-client applications.

Lisa Carnochan, Sun's product line manager for client software, said it was a mutual decision by the companies after looking "a year down the road" and finding that makers of handheld devices, e-commerce sites and others were "already doing this for us."

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