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First look: Sun Java Desktop System Release 2

By Jem Matzan on May 21, 2004 (8:00:00 AM)

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Imagine for a moment that Windows XP came with Office XP Professional and Visual Studio .NET preinstalled with it. Imagine it was significantly more secure and easier to use. Imagine that it cost only $50 for all of that software. Sun's new Java Desktop System Release 2 is like the bizarro world equivalent of that kind of Microsoft software package. It's in the same league, except it doesn't use Microsoft technologies. If only it actually worked.

Despite my best efforts, this software just didn't work for me, so the rest of this review will cover what the software includes and what it should offer if you manage to get it installed and working on your machine. I can't verify that any of these features work as stated; I can't even verify that Sun Java Desktop System 2 works at all on any computer hardware, although I'd say it's a safe bet that someone, somewhere has a computer that this software will work properly on.

Sun has some "canned" screen shots available if you'd like to see what the programs and the desktop look like. I was unable to save or send screen shots when in Safe Mode on my notebook system.

The operating environment

Java Desktop System 2 is billed as an "operating environment," not a GNU/Linux distribution or an operating system. The technical difference between the terms is simple: an operating system is software that controls the hardware and lets you use the computer. An operating environment is an operating system plus an array of tools and utilities that allow you to use the system for a specified purpose. In this case the operating environment is geared toward both system administration in a corporate environment and software development using the Java programming language.

What this means is that you can substitute the operating system module for a different one and still retain the same functionality and purpose for the operating environment. Sun is already developing a version of Java Desktop System that uses Solaris instead of GNU/Linux. Despite the abysmal hardware support and restrictive licensing that Solaris generally offers, it should still be a better choice than the SUSE-based release that Sun currently offers. It would be a different story if they'd used a modern GNU/Linux distribution like SUSE 9.1 or even 9.0, but the basis for JDS2 is SUSE 8.1, which uses the 2.4.19 Linux kernel. At this point in Linux development, 2.4.19 is prehistoric -- it's about a year and a half old.

I bet you could probably upgrade the operating system while leaving the interface and the rest of the environment intact by installing a newer version of SUSE after JDS is on the system. I had the opportunity to try it on my laptop system and it seemed to work at first (JDS was recognized as a viable distribution to upgrade to SUSE 9.1 from) but I didn't have enough space to install all of the packages that I needed with the existing partition setup, so I had to repartition and thus lost the ability to test the upgrade further.


Sun Java Desktop System Release 2 comes with more software firepower than almost any other GNU/Linux distribution on the market. It's not that it has more in terms of the number of packages -- certainly it doesn't have more than what is contained on all of the Debian CDs, or even in the full SUSE installation -- but it has more specially designed software than any other distribution. Specifically I'm talking about:

  • YaST2, the SUSE setup tool
  • SaX2, the SUSE X Window configuration tool
  • Java System Update Service
  • StarOffice 7
  • Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE)
  • Sun Control Station 2.1
  • Sun Java Desktop System Configuration Manager
  • Remote Desktop Takeover
  • Sun Java Studio Standard 5 update 1
  • Enhanced language capabilities, including improved support for Chinese and new support for Japanese, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese

As components of SUSE's distribution, YaST and SaX are part of the same backbone that provides automatic hardware detection and manual configuration through graphical dialogues. YaST also provides an excellent control panel for managing your system's network and other administrative duties that would otherwise have to be done by editing text files by hand.

SaX makes configuring the X Server an easy task if your hardware is supported. You can change the screen resolution and color depth or change hardware settings for your video card and monitor if necessary.

The Java System Update Service is much like Red Hat Network and SUSE's YaST Online Update. It downloads security patches and bug fixes on a schedule (or at your convenience) and installs them for you automatically. This is what you're buying when you pay the yearly license fee. If you don't renew your agreement at the end of one year, you will no longer have access to software updates through this service.

Sun StarOffice 7 is an excellent alternative to Microsoft Office. It has a more-than-competent word processor that can read from and write to the Word .DOC file format; a spreadsheet that can do most of what Excel can do; an equation solver; a database program; and a presentation and slide show production program like PowerPoint. Those who are heavily entrenched in Microsoft Office may find it difficult to switch or adjust to a different office suite at first, but if you will be using StarOffice exclusively within a company, you'll have little trouble being productive with it.

The Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE) 1.4.2 application development environment is included with Java Desktop System, something that doesn't come with very many other GNU/Linux distributions because of licensing issues with Sun. Of course this being their own operating environment, they can't run into those hurdles. J2SE consists of the Java Development Kit (JDK) and the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) and provides the necessary functionality for developing and using software written in the Java language.

The Sun Control Station 2.1 is a resurrection of the Sun Cobalt Control Station product that was previously discontinued. Control Station allows a system administrator to remotely administer, update, and control all nodes on the network that are running Java Desktop System. Through Control Station you can apply patches to some or all machines remotely, track and apply system images, enable or disable services, or any number of custom control modules that you can either get from Sun or design yourself.

The Sun Java Desktop System Configuration Manager is a comprehensive graphical utility for assigning rights and restrictions to users and groups.

The Remote Desktop Takeover utility allows an authorized user to remotely view and interact with other users' desktops, thereby enabling them to help and guide users or troubleshoot remote machines. This appears to work much like the Remote Desktop function in Windows XP Professional and other third-party virtual network connection software.

The special features of JDS 2 -- the Configuration Manager, Control Station and Remote Desktop Takeover -- will not work with the previous edition of JDS, so you'll have to upgrade all of your systems if you're using JDS 2003 and want to take advantage of the new administrative programs in Java Desktop System 2.

I can't tell you much about Sun Java Studio Standard 5 Update 1 because I'm not a Java programmer. Despite the inclusion of this advanced IDE (and the fact that it's based on NetBeans), Sun also includes NetBeans 3.6, which is another fancy GUI-based Java IDE.

Lastly, JDS 2 includes enhanced language capabilities, including improved support for Chinese and new support for Japanese, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese.

Using Sun Java Desktop System

From what little I saw of the desktop, JDS's GNOME-based interface was streamlined, productivity-minded, and aesthetically pleasing. It takes the familiarity of Windows XP, removes all of the extra garbage, and puts all of the right tools in all of the right places while remaining easy to customize. It reminded me vaguely of BlueCurve, but better.


Sun Java Desktop System 2 is a good example of a great idea poorly implemented. The base system is exactly the same as the original 2003 release, the only difference being the addition of the rest of the operating environment: proprietary system management tools and the Java development software. Those are significant enhancements, but considering the atrocious functionality that the base system has, the primary focus should have been on improving the range of hardware support rather than adding more software.

The idea of an operating environment specifically designed for Java development with the look and feel of a streamlined GNOME desktop intrigues me enough to want to learn Java just so I can use it. Only the licensing and the poor hardware support stand in the way of my use of this operating environment, and if it were more sensibly licensed I would recommend it to others who have older systems.

Sun hopes that JDS2 will displace older versions of Microsoft Windows in emerging markets, especially in Asia and South America. Given the expanded language support for these regions and the fact that older versions of Windows are certain to be using outdated hardware, Java Desktop System 2 may do quite well in those markets.

I recommend Sun consider making some changes:

  • Licensing: change it. If it hasn't occurred to Sun that they're losing customers because of this atrocious license agreement, let me be the first to turn them on to it. Actually I'd be the second to try. The more you tighten your licensing grip, the more customers will slip through your fingers and find other solutions.
  • Hardware: It's what runs the software. I tried four systems, three of which were distinctly different, and none of them would properly run this software. I'm sure that there are many more systems out there that are nothing like mine that also will have at least some degree of difficulty installing or running JDS2. Sun needs to think about using a newer kernel at the very least, and at best a newer version of the whole operating system that runs the JDS environment.
  • Phony phone support really sucks. If you give me a phone number and tell me that this is where to get support, and then I call and there is no one to answer the phone -- or worse yet, there is only voice mail without the possibility of reaching a support tech -- then I become a very unhappy customer. What's worse, when I do get a return call the person calling can hardly communicate with me because English is clearly not his native tongue. The purpose of his call is to tell me that I can get support only if I go through the Web site registration and use the online form to send a support request, which has a one-business-day turnaround time. What if I don't have access to a machine that can get online? This "support" is horrible and the whole process is not in line with the reputation that Sun has for such services.
  • Paper documentation would be nice. How are you supposed to read PDF files on a CD if you can't even get the system working?
  • Purpose Operating environment
    Manufacturer Sun Microsystems
    Architectures i386
    License Mostly under the GNU GPL, but some parts are tightly restricted by Sun
    Market "Emerging markets" in Asia and South America; corporations that are trying to migrate from an old version of MS Windows
    Price (retail) $50 annually (click here to order JDS 2 at the Sun online store)
    Previous version Java Desktop System 2003
    Product Web site Click here

    Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist, and editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.


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    on First look: Sun Java Desktop System Release 2

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    not this time!

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 03:47 AM
    excerpt: JDS is based on GNU/Linux

    Usually, I am a strong partisan of using the expression 'GNU/Linux' instead of just 'Linux'. But in this case, I think that an exception might be in order.

    Does JDS have *anything* in common with GNU at all? Of course not! This is the triumph of 'corporate linux', the only kind which Sun understands. It has nothing free about it, neither in the 'beer' not in the 'speech' sense. To be GNU-based, a application needs to promote GNU values (

    As the Led Zeppling song Stairway to Heaven reminds of not all that glitters is gold...

    JDS is 'open source' based yes, and most certainly 'non-GNU/Linux' based. In fact, JDS is *typical* of what you get when you drop GNU from GNU/Linux.

    I will conclude with another verse from Stairway to Heaven:

    Yes there are two paths you can go by
    but in the long run
    There's still time to change the road you're on


    Re:not this time!

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 25, 2004 05:09 AM
    Does JDS have *anything* in common with GNU at all? Of course not! This is the triumph of 'corporate linux', the only kind which Sun understands. It has nothing free about it, neither in the 'beer' not in the 'speech' sense. To be GNU-based, a application needs to promote GNU values (

    Yes. Too bad some of us have bills to pay and can't go around parading as a bunch of software hippies hoping that "corporations lost millions of dollars due to our software" like your idol.


    Re:not this time!

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 25, 2004 07:29 AM
    my friend, corporations not only help you pay your bills, they also make sure that your paying ability is streched to the maximum, they make sure that you are as 'productive" (for them, that is!) as possible meaning that they pay you as little as possible for as much as they can squeeze out of you. Yes, working for them will 'help you pay our bills' but did you ever wonder *why* it is precisely working for them that gives you the help you need to pay your bills?

    Think, THINK! and realize that what you call "software hippies" are the ONLY ONES out there who are not after your money. In fact, they wish you had more money to pay your bills and they feel very sorry that corporations can suck out all your ressources out of you.

    Software hippies? No. Your only true friends, even if you are too brainwashed to understand that.


    JDS is crap

    Posted by: Anirban Biswas. on May 22, 2004 05:17 AM
    My first real interaction with JDS was in LinuxAsia 2004. There I went to SUN's stall & ask one of the beautifull girsl about it she pass over me to the tech person & also ask me to sit infront of a JDS machine.

    In my home then I was running SuSE 9.0 with KDE 3.1 & Baghira theme so the desktop look pretty dull windoze like then I asked what goodies in t & I came to know that most of the stuff they give are also given SuSE 9.0 more over being a SUN product there is no J2EE installed in it , I mean I issued javac on konsole & got command not found though JRE was there.

    Now SuSE 9.0 give me both JRE & Javac show why should I use JDS.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;-)


    Re:JDS is crap

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 23, 2004 12:39 AM
    Please think/learn before talk/write . This writer do not know what J2EE and JRE are. None of those package have anything to do with javac . You must have the SDK of java if you are a java developer and want to use javac.

    All those comments about java on this place is amusing. Is somebody holding a gun in their neck and force them to clach on the keyboard?


    Pure FUD (from

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 05:36 AM
    So the author couldn't get his install to work, and decides to trash JDS in an article, without even bothering to try a new set of media first.

    That's irresponsible journalism, or worse, FUD.

    What makes me think it's FUD?

    Well, how about the fact that the part he couldn't get working -- the initial installation -- comes from SuSE! The author hadn't even gotten to the parts done by Sun.

    So are we to believe that this author is right, and the SuSE installation procedures are crap?

    Or should we believe every other review of SuSE instead?

    Now it doesn't surprise me to see attacks on Sun's JDS. After all, JDS comes from Sun, so the Microsoft astroturfers are going to attack it, and JDS uses Gnome, so the Trolltech astroturfers are going to attack it.

    But I do have to wonder . . . when did become an anti-Linux FUD site?


    Re:Pure FUD (from

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 05:59 AM
    Wow - convenient world you live in. Everyone who disagrees with your perspective is an 'astroturfer'. Hope it all works out for you.


    Re:Pure FUD (from

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 06:42 AM
    Yep. I also used to suspect that some of the posts supporting JBoss (and fudding Sun) were astroturf.

    And it appears <A HREF="" title="">I was right</a>.

    Of course we all know that Microsoft does it. The proof of that has come out many times (e.g. the Barkto affair, the Microsoft documents leaked to the L.A. times, the evidence in the DR-DOS case, and so on).

    So it would appear that your only problem is with the fact that I believe that Trolltech also uses astroturf.

    Oh well.

    BTW, you should note that I didn't say that this article is astroturf. I just said it wouldn't surprise me.


    Re:Pure FUD (from

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 25, 2004 05:23 AM
    I would say that I have to agree with the original poster. The author does seem somewhat biased against this distro. Think about it. When was the last time you couldn't get a distro to install on four different systems? Frankly, I have to wonder how much Linux experience the author has.

    Here is a link to someone who benchmarked to different SATA drives in Suse 8.2.<nobr>t<wbr></nobr> .html

    The tech support situation was interesting and a bit disconcerting. Hopefully, businesses will start to realize that cheaper does not mean better.

    And what was the diatribe about the license agreement about? Is he an attorney? You shouldn't read that crap... it will give you brain damage faster than programming in BASIC! Seriously, who has even bothered reading the entire GPL?


    Re:Pure FUD (from

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 28, 2004 05:57 AM
    I have read the entire GPL. Its about 10 pages of text on a vt100 console - not including the preamble and appendices. Its not exactly a strenuous read.


    JDS fan

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 06:27 AM
    I've been using JDS since December and reckon (with a few tweaks) it's the best Linux distribution out there for desktop use.

    It looks good, StarOffice 7 is excellent, all the media bits work with Mozilla and generally feels wel integrated. Well done Sun - looking forward to JDS2!


    Re:Just Damn Stupid (JDS) fan

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 01:23 PM
    So you get to pay for non-free software to word-process and browse. And 'Mozilla feels integrated'. Thanks to Sun. right?

    BRAVO! Brilliant post!

    You are the 100% moron who cannot say anything even remotely pertinent or substantiated.

    go back to your Mac OS9!


    My brother agrees with you

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2004 11:21 PM
    My brother runs a small business, with a dozen or so PCs.

    For years, I've been telling my brother about Linux, but he was a die-hard Windows users.

    Nevertheless, he used to complain about Windows all the time. And those complaints grew to a fever pitch when he started to use Windows XP in his business. Some sort of incompatibility between Windows XP and Windows 98 kept wiping out his Access database. So he was looking at a big expense to upgrade his entire business to Windows XP, and he wasn't happy,

    So, instead, he upgraded his entire business to Linux. And the distribution he chose was Sun's JDS.

    Since then, he has had nothing but good things to say about Linux, and JDS in specific. Like I did some years back, my brother has rediscovered the fun of computing. He doesn't have to fight with his PCs all the time, Linux just works and does what he asks it, and his business runs much more smoothly.


    question about Access

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 23, 2004 12:50 AM
    what did your brother replace Access with? I realize that MySQL and Postgresql are far superior to Access, but they lack a neat GUI front end. I am not MS fan, but for a small business with no real prospects for growth Access is a very easy, flexible database. To my knowledge there is no GNU/Linux equivalent (though I have not seen Abacus, but either way I only want to run free software on my computers).

    Was it hard for him to migrate Access to whatever database he chose?

    Hope to hear from you!


    Re:question about Access

    Posted by: Jem Matzan on May 23, 2004 09:29 AM
    Try Rekall. It's made by The Kompany and it's got a GPL edition and a non-Free edition.

    It comes with SuSE 9.1 Pro as well.



    Re:question about Access

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 24, 2004 12:20 AM
    > what did your brother replace Access with?

    His database is not overly complex, and he originally programmed it himself. He migrated the data to MySQL (though I was pushing for PostgreSQL<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-).

    Migrating the data was fairly simple -- define the new tables, and then just export and import. The front-end queries, however, are more complicated.

    Initially, for the front end, I helped him set up some rudimentary web-based queries using PHP.

    We also used <A HREF="" title="">phpMyAdmin</a> (or <A HREF="" title="">here</a>) to create and manage his MySQL tables.

    He hasn't set up his local front-end yet, though he will probably be using the database software that comes with StarOffice.

    I haven't used it myself, but I see from the <A HREF="" title="">StarOffice FAQ</a> that it now comes with the <A HREF="" title="">Adabas Database</a>.

    I had also suggested a few other alternatives, such as:

    - A custom-written front-end using the Mozilla toolkit.
    - A custom-written front-end using Gnome (since JDS is Gnome-based).
    - GnomeDB (though I don't know how far along that project is).
    - The database access capabilities of OpenOffice (though they're quite rudimentary).


    I have used JDS ...

    Posted by: opteron_user on May 23, 2004 07:20 PM
    I have used Sun's Java Desktop System, and it is simply the best desktop for businesses, where the people do WORK, and probably for home users. I'm not a fan of Gnome for various reasons, but Sun have done a magnificent job with it.

    It seems that the Java Desktop System will become part of Solaris, and will use Looking Glass technology. So when I upgrade my machines to Solaris 10, it will have a great 3D desktop environment on top of the best operating system.


    Re:I have used JDS ...

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 25, 2004 05:40 AM
    So when I upgrade my machines to Solaris 10, it will have a great 3D desktop environment on top of the best operating system.

    Oh, no. You've gone and done it. What are you suggesting? Don't you know that nothing is ever going to be better then Linux! They'll hang you from your includes and scanf your internal organs!


    Re:I have used JDS ...

    Posted by: opteron_user on May 26, 2004 12:54 AM
    > Don't you know that nothing is ever going to be better then Linux!

    Lets get this straight. Solaris IS better than Linux. Solaris 10 WILL be even better, with features such as DTrace and others like pedictive self-healing, N1 Grid Containers, and Access Rights Management. The full list is here:


    WOW does this guy know his stuff...

    Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 26, 2004 07:45 PM
    JDS isn't based on a particular version of SuSE. Have you ever tried installing gnome on any version of SuSE? Hardly much support for gnome in SUSE. I have used JDS for months, it works better than most.

    Look at the rpm's and you'll see they're snapshots of "no particular version".

    The plumbing of JDS is primarily based on Yast2 but it's built with an earlier glibc (2.25). SuSE uses glibc 2.3. Not 'old' by any measure.

    It's a very customized Linux distro.

    You would think the 'reviewer' would have at least looked into what he was reviewing.


    Install failure!

    Posted by: Administrator on May 23, 2004 06:13 AM
    and i thot i screwed up, or did something wrong with my discs. it won't install in a presario s5000 either, P3, 50GB hd, and 1GB of ram, with an emachines 15 in. monitor. what junk.


    Interesting experience

    Posted by: Administrator on May 23, 2004 01:23 AM
    I had no problems on several modern computers, so I suspect bad media. It is based on United Linux, not SuSE 8.1 AFAIK, and I didn't experience the same issues you see.

    It is far from perfect, but I didn't see it as useless, either. Just my experience though. YMMV


    Re:Interesting experience

    Posted by: Jem Matzan on May 23, 2004 06:00 AM
    Bad media was ruled out when it installed properly on the notebook system. I also tried JDS 2003 and that had the same problems with the AMD64 system (didn't try it on the others).



    Pretty Damning review

    Posted by: Administrator on May 22, 2004 12:26 AM
    This review is pretty damning of JDS2. I don't think it'll do well if all this is true.

    However, if Sun's intention is to take Linux out and put Solaris in, maybe they don't care about this.


    Re:Pretty Damning review

    Posted by: Jem Matzan on May 22, 2004 04:29 AM
    Perhaps it is damning, but it is only so because the product was not up to speed. I was absolutely stunned that Sun had not upgraded the core OS at all since the initial release.

    I look forward to testing the Solaris-based JDS in a few months, but only if it isn't based on Solaris 7. I have the feeling that the Solaris JDS will be superior in many ways to the SuSE-based JDS, and I don't think that would be a coincidence if it happens.



    No problem here.

    Posted by: Administrator on May 23, 2004 05:08 AM
    I've been using JDS for quite some time and while JDS 1 had a few problems I have had a nearly flawless experience with JDS 2 on a couple dozen machines. While my personal preference is Debian, followed by Gentoo and Slackware, I am quite happy with JDS in the professional realm.


    Couldn't get it install on FOUR machines!!!

    Posted by: Administrator on May 25, 2004 12:55 AM
    From experience, that would make the author one of the more inept people in the industry. But I will give him an out. He probably has all of his hardware tweeked to get it to work with XP.


    Re:Couldn't get it install on FOUR machines!!!

    Posted by: Administrator on May 25, 2004 03:25 AM
    Yeah right. He can't get past the initial install screen and it gives him no usefull error message. Tech support can give him no help so, yeah, it must be his bias towards XP.

    Perhaps you can post your own review?


    Screen Damaged

    Posted by: Administrator on June 16, 2004 03:04 AM
    I inserted the disk and turned to talk to a friend. I didn't see anything happen so I rebooted my machine and we walked to the door. As we said goodbye I forgot to return and look. Hours later when I finally did, my monitor smelled like smoke and it was making static-like refresh noises. Apparently the demo CD doesn't autoprobe the refresh rate and causes damage to monitors.


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