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Java IoT: Article

Review: Java Desktop System Release 2

Review: Java Desktop System Release 2

A recent review of Sun's Java Desktop System came up with less than stellar results. When my colleague-in-print attempted to take the OS through its paces, he found that he was unable to even complete a simple installation. In his review, he identified the culprit as Sun's poor support for ultra-modern hardware. (Although many have commented that it may have been due to bad CDROM media.)

Given that Sun has often claimed that JDS is targeted at corporations users who wish to reuse existing hardware, I will attempt to provide a second look based on slightly older hardware.


For this test I am using a PIII 733 w/512 MB of RAM, a GeForce2 GTS, an AWE32 sound card, an Intel Etherexpress NIC, two 40 GB Western Digital ATA100 drives, a Creative 40x/8x/4x CDRW, a standard PS/2 keyboard, and a Microsoft Intellieye Optical Mouse. This machine was custom built a few years ago for maximum capacity and compatibility, with a focus on machine stability rather than performance. These decisions resulted in a slower processor and smaller disks than the maximum available at the time. In other words, exactly the type of machine a corporate office might look at deploying.


Upon inserting the disk and rebooting, I was presented with a graphical GRUB bootloader screen. I selected "install" and the YaST installer started up. If you've ever used SuSE, you should know what to expect out of YaST. It does a quick analysis of your system and suggests intelligent defaults for the install. When I previously installed JDS Release 1, the installer automatically chose ReiserFS as the filesystem and detected all the hardware without issue. The same thing occurred this time, except that I told the installer to upgrade the current installation instead of reformatting my ReiserFS partition.

After the installer finished analyzing the system, it proceeded to install all the packages from the first disk. This appeared to be core system components such as the kernel and command line utilities. The installer then asked me to remove the CDROM and reboot. After the reboot, the installer relaunched and began installing packages from the second and third CDROMs. When it was finished, I was presented with the Java Desktop login screen.

All in all, it doesn't appear that the installer has changed from Release 1 to Release 2. The install was straightforward, easy, and intelligent. I can't say that I have any complaints in this area, save for the fact that the install "feels" very much ripped from SuSE rather than having been customized for JDS.


Upon login, you are presented with a highly customized GNOME interface that looks a lot like Windows. There's the "Launch" button on the lower-left hand corner, volume control on the right, and the list of open windows in the middle. There are only two things about the interface that would seem unfamiliar to a Windows user. The first is that the clock is located directly to the right of the Launch button. This is pretty minor and will only confuse users for a short while. The second difference is the addition of a desktop pager. This is potentially dangerous feature as help desks are bound to receive a large number of calls from users who believe that it caused all their programs to crash. Thankfully, it can be easily removed via the right-click popup menu.

A useful assortment of both Open Source and commercial software can be found under the "Launch" menu. All the standard GNOME utilities and games are there, as well as Mozilla, Real Player, Macromedia Flash, StarOffice, Evolution, GIMP, Java Media Player, and a variety of open source Java software. Given the visual integration of the Desktop and GNOME software, Mozilla and RealPlayer seem out of place. Mozilla has a skin to make it look like a JDS application, but the skin is only half complete. In all fairness, it has been much improved since Release 1. Never the less, there are still a lot of visual glitches and combined button styles.

RealPlayer is the same free player that is available for download from the Real site. As one would expect, there is no full screen support, and it does not integrate with the desktop in any way other than to associate itself with RealPlayer files. Sadly, not even the file associations works correctly. Double clicking on a RealMedia file merely results in an error message about expecting a file path instead of a URL. RealPlayer then forces you to navigate its antiquated File|Open menu in order to open the file.

The Java Media Player is pretty much useless. Of all the videos on my NTFS drive (including professional videos of real events, recordings of television shows, and VCD cartoons for the kids), only some MPEGs (excluding the VCDs) and a few documentary clips of shuttle launches were able to play. MP3s do play, but JMP doesn't have a playlist to queue them up. On top of that, JMP automatically loops both audio and video files. In short, Sun needs to spend a little time working out a few of the kinks in the player.

StarOffice is nearly identical to the latest OpenOffice release, sans two minor differences. For one, the look and feel has been smoothed out to give it a more professional feel. Second, the clipart library has been upgraded with a wide variety of images for spicing up any document or presentation.

As it turns out, Evolution is a very slick email client. The email setup is reminiscent of Outlook Express, but with the addition of a zooming world map for choosing your physical location. I have no idea why Evolution needs geographical information, but the map widget is so impressive that you'll find yourself not caring. Once Evolution is configured, the interface looks and functions almost exactly like that of Microsoft Outlook. Weather, news, calendar, mail, and contacts lists are all there and function as one would expect. A few features for grouping mail appear to be missing, but this is far from a deal breaker. Even advanced users of Microsoft Outlook should feel right at home.

GIMP is included as an alternative to Photoshop and MS Paint. While the version number is 1.3, the interface is the same as the new 2.0 series of GIMP. Sun must have decided to include a well tested development branch that lead to the 2.0 release.

Java Desktop System also adds a desktop folder called "Network Places" that's very similar to the Windows' Network Neighborhood. It allows you to access various network file systems including FTP, SMB, and NFS. Mounting one of these file systems simply adds a shortcut to the "Network Places" folder instead of actually mounting the it to the underlying filesystem. This has the side effect of preventing most programs from opening and saving files to these locations. Attempts to open a file are usually met with the message "[program] does not support [ftp|smb] urls." To get around this issue, I found myself copying files to and from the desktop to edit them.

SMB (Windows File Sharing) was particularly annoying. The Network Browser doesn't work without a Domain Controller, and every time I changed directories or copied files, I found myself facing three or four "enter password" dialogs. While I was able to muddle through, businesses may wish to consider adding smbfs entries to the '/etc/fstab' file instead.

Java Support

Java support in Release 2 is overall a very pleasant experience. Applets work without any configuration, and Java Web Start programs launch at the click of a link. Even executable JAR files work correctly, which is a major improvement over the previous version of JDS. Given that JDS has no native installer or packaging system, the support for executable JAR files will finally allow ISVs to deploy software on the Java Desktop System.

New in this Release

Java Desktop System Release 2 comes with a mixed bag of new features and broken software. On the up side, JDS now allows you to create and modify Launch Menu icons by right clicking on the open menu. The new Online Update program is very cool looking, and easy to use. It also adds a CD with the Java Development Kit (JDK 1.4) and the NetBeans IDE. Unfortunately, it does a lot of things quite badly as well.

The first thing I noticed was that the graphical boot has disappeared. Where I used to see an att attractive progress bar while booting, I now see a small icon of Tux that quickly scrolls off the screen as the system boots. I'm sure that Sun had their reasons for this, but it makes the system look much less professional.

The next thing I noticed was that several programs were broken. The Online Update program appears to replace the "Online Software Update" program from the previous version. Too bad Sun mislinked it to consolehelper instead of consolehelper-gtk. Perhaps this was an artifact of doing an update instead of a clean install, but somehow I doubt it. It would be far more likely that the link simply wouldn't exist. It's a good thing that Sun is deploying this to corporate users. Home users would have no idea how to fix such a problem.

Sun also added two icons for "Sun Instant Messenger." The first one is a link to a JNLP file that supposedly launches the software. This returns a 404 Not Found from Sun's Web site. The other icon is a link to sign up for the service. If you follow the link and sign up for the service, you are presented with two launch options. Supposedly one is over a secure VPN. The "non-VPN" link points to an unsigned application. I don't know what they're thinking, but Java Webstart won't launch an unsecured application that asks for unrestricted access to the machine. Launching the link for the VPN version fails with a missing library. Do they want people to try this service or not?

The last change is pretty minor. Totem (listed as "Video Player") seems to have completely disappeared from the system. While the icon for it remains, GNOME cannot find the executable. Again, this may be from the fact that I did an update instead of a clean install. It really doesn't matter as Sun's release of Totem has very few advantages over the Java Media Player.

Final Thoughts

Despite the rather "rushed" feel to Release 2, the Sun Java Desktop System is slowly shaping up into a serious Corporate competitor to Microsoft Windows. Many managers will probably decide that they wish to stick with their Windows laptops for the time being, but they'll probably drool at the opportunity to replace the rest of their very expensive Windows infrastructure. Home users might also appreciate this OS in its prebundled OEM form since its similarity to the Windows interface makes it easy to learn and use. However, they may wish to wait a few releases for Sun to work out the bugs.

More Stories By Jerason Banes

Jerason Banes is a developer who was one of the original promoters of the Java language. "I was Java, before Java was coooooolllll," he says. In the past he was a lead programmer and chief architect for a million hit a day Web site and was an early adopter of servlets, JSP, and EJB. Before Java, he gained a great deal of experience in C/C++, VB, and COBOL and has contributed to a large number of open-source projects.

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Most Recent Comments
SunDesktop 08/09/04 03:16:14 PM EDT

Back in May Kammie Kayl wrote the official Sun article to go with JDS 2, it''s well worth looking at.

JDSboy 08/09/04 03:10:30 PM EDT

I agree with Greg:
>>JDS is even better then Solaris x86 and is much faster as
>>well.. Besides this a much better second release than >>MS Windows or OS/2 ever was...

Greg Kilgore 08/04/04 09:22:19 AM EDT

I don''t see what the issues that people are having.. I have installed JDS on at least 100 desktops, servers and laptops. I had very few failures (5). Those failures where most attributed to out dated hardware, or it needed the firmware (BIOS) to be updated to the most recent versions.

I also have installed this software on Virtual PC v5.1 (as this is last version before MS changed it). Not to mention I have installed on VMWare as well.

So all these negative comments are really baffling to me. JDS is even better then Solaris x86 and is much faster as well.. Besides this a much better second release than MS Windows or OS/2 ever was...

Sam Hahn 08/04/04 07:31:08 AM EDT

The appearance of "Java" in "JDS" slapped on this ... package ... is enough for me to know that this is all positioning without substance.

Though I did not try for days to fix the problems, I was unsuccessful in my 2 attempts to install "JDS" in VirtualPC, using reasonable resource settings. (However, Xandros, Lycoris, Lindows all installed with no problems in VirtualPC.)

Sun needs to focus on being a good Linux server company, take their Solaris experience into that base, and leverage their strengths in the server room. If you''re doing a good job at this, *THEN* try something new. Else, you''ll dig too fast into that cash reserve.

Sun is not a desktop company - never has been successful there. (Anyone have a Ray still running?)

And Sun still cannot focus on a successful profitable software strategy. Its most valuable IP in software is Java, but where''s the money-making strategy there?

Consolidate your server-room base. Make that solid and defensible. Else there will be *NO* successful business area in Sun.

netman 07/30/04 10:34:32 AM EDT

I have installed JDS 2 on an older machine as the support for newer cards is still catching up. P4, 2GHZ, Dell, 512RAM,20 GB HD, LiteOn DVD ROM. I hope they get the hardware manufacturers to see this as a good product for extensive driver support.
I had the smoothest of clean installs and was up and running in 40 minutes. It detected all of my hardware and zipped through the three CDs. After two months, I am yet to reboot my machine. GUI definitely can improve compared to the slick look and feel of XP. But from a utility perspective, its more than enough for an average or corporate user unless one needs to use some of the windows-only products. For that one will have to buy a product called Crossover office which runs MS programs on linux.
The email client feels almost same as Outlook minus the security issues (or have these not been uncovered yet?)I dont like the size and memory consumption of mozilla 1.4 so I downloaded mozilla Firefox(most impressive performance, IE better watchout!). BTW, there is a JDS specific Firefox download available at mozilla.org, one has to look closely in the download page. This version of firefox installs without problems.
I feel that the control center (management console) that came with Release 2 is a wonderful addition and very useful for system administrators as it is quite easy to push policies into a set of JDS client desktops. Other linux distros are just catching up on this. Perhaps this came from Sun quickly due to their extensive experience with Solaris compared to the relative inexperience with corporate needs of the other linux distro companies.

I have seen some minor problems as reported by the reviewer about some apps like java instant messenger not showing up, unable to add apps to the Launch menu. And I think the Java name is more a branding issue. No issues here as long as I have a stable OS which this seems to be.

Overall, my experience has been very pleasant and from a corporate point of view, it is a very good and cheaper alternative, and most importantly, with potential to improve. There is also the benefit on not being hit by the cost of containing a worm attack on your corporate network that uses MS infrastructure to propagate.
If Sun stays at it, and does not lose focus, this could evolve into a good competitive product. After all it took many years for MS to get to their current stability levels and they still have a long way to go on security.

Smeagol 07/30/04 10:01:09 AM EDT

I started looking into various linux distros around a year & half ago. I started with first trying to get an environment where I could test the various installations. Given the kind of resources I had, I settled with a dell optiplex gx110, 733Mhz with 512 RAM and 32MB video card.

In the very beginning itself, I had to sadly do away with a handful of the popular distros based purely on unsupported hardware. My first clean installation was Mandrake, loved it. But then came along SuSe and have not gone back to any other installations yet.

Interested in trying out the JDS, I did a clean install over my stable SuSe expecting it to be better than SuSe. Sadly, even though it is built on top of SuSe, the installation did not come out with flying colors. Where Suse went through smoothly, JDS was that much difficult to handle. I was amazed at the kind of resources it required for displaying the video components slowing down the response time. Besides that, 512MB proved to be too little dragging the response much lower.

Not the one to give up, considering that JDS was touted as an out-of-the-box substitute for windows, I finally decided to dual boot it on my everyday use Dell Dimension, 1.7Ghz, 256MB ram with 32MB video memory. Sadly, it crashed my whole system, including my windows and my harddisk was irrecoverable.

I recently installed Lindows but am yet to form an opinion on it based purely on resource requirements. I have reinsalled SuSe on the optiplex and has been trouble free since. I can appreciate the path that SUN is taking with the JDS, but it still doesn''t seem to be at a stage to be a substitute for windows. Hopefully, with the open source environment maturing and linux making big strides, it''ll manage to do it with time.

One question does remain though. If SuSe is a commercially successful product with a whole company based just on marketing and evolving it, why did SUN base their JDS on SuSe instead of partnering with them and trying to strengthen SuSe as a brand and with it market the JAVA brand?

Just some thoughts!

Sebastian Hollweger 07/30/04 02:55:25 AM EDT

Installed JDS release 2 without any problems; handling via GNOME for all desktop activities compared to SuSE 9.1 worked without any problems. The installation and using of the Java development tools went smoothly.
In my opinion the article has some negative touch.

Lee Grey 07/29/04 05:57:55 PM EDT

Even if JDS is nothing more than another Linux distro, I see it as a positive move for Sun to market it as a desktop alternative to Windows. Linux is perceived as a hacker's environment, so any effort to offer something more mainstream serves to loosen Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop.

Of course, the mainstream world is even more sensitive to poor execution, so it's disappointing to hear about the problems. Then again, there is no shortage of problems in running Windows, so I can't imagine what the loyalty is about. I guess it's a simple case of the devil you know being preferable to the devil you don't.

I would imagine that in fifty years, we'll look back on this period in computing technology and wonder how people ever survived.

I wonder about it every day.

Willem 07/29/04 09:14:02 AM EDT

I agree strongly with a previous poster that doing an update instead of a fresh install doesn't sound like a wise install decision. Especially if the original install was less than satisfactory.

Secondly, it's a pitty that the reviewer didn't explore the management tools that come with JDS. Those are the big differentiators between JDS 1 and 2. JDS Configuration Manager allows an organization to centralize all the "Preference" options of applications. Like setting the browser's proxy server settings, or the configuration of Evolution for the company's mail servers. JDS Control Station is similar to KickStart, allowing large scale customized installations of JDS from a central software repository. I realize that testing this type of features takes more than a few days. But without going into that depth the review is just testing JDS as "just another Linux distro".

andy stefancik 07/29/04 08:56:26 AM EDT

I have been running version one since about April. It runs on less than recommended hardware, a Pentium 233, with 200 megs or ram. It has a sun workstation monitor with an adapter. I am extremly pleased with the windows like environment and configuration tools. Staroffice has been flawless. I use mozilla for email but tried evolution and it worked fine. Mozilla seems to crash more often than the netscape I was running on redhat6.1. All in all, I think its sweet, and with a little more stability in a few areas, my opinion is that it will be a very nice alternative to a virus laden sway back horse. BTW, it is comforting to know that the microsoft viruses won't run.

Ely 07/29/04 08:37:53 AM EDT

-- If you're not in the mood for a negative review, please skip this one --

I was dumb enough to plunk down the $50 for it, mostly because I wanted to play with Project Looking Glass after seeing it at JavaONE.

I had to wait five days to get the package even after paying more for faster delivery since there is no online download.

The packaging is nice. A snappy Sun box with the Java logo in the corner. I guess you can''t really have an oobe without the 'b'

I installed it on a Compaq Evo D510 (P4/2GHz, 1GB RAM, an extra Matrox display adapter handed down from Fred Flintstone, a plain vanilla HP CD burner, and everything else stock from Compaq)

Alas I found it mostly disappointing.

The install program failed to detect a dual display system and after much fiddling with yast2 I've given up.

I had to download and compile special video drivers from Intel to get it to recognize the hardware 3D acceleration features of a two-year-old video card.

The mouse pointer has a mind of its own and will follow you to where you're going but then decide to go its own way.

Every attempt to install Mozilla's firefox bombs out because it is looking for some wacky package somewhere.

IBM WebSphere Studio Enterprise Developer for Linux gets "stuck on stupid" whenever I try to install it.

I'm confident that with enough fiddling, tweaking, and the odd rain dance I will be able to get the dual-head to work.

Project Looking Glass is really cool but I have trouble explaining to my colleagues just what benefit it will lend in a business environment (perhaps because there really is none)

If I use WINE I could probably run Outlook ''97 (the last version that didn''t require IE) to talk to Exchange.

JDS runs real neat in a VMWare VM. I''ve yet to try XP in a VMWare VM hosted by JDS.

The agency where I work doesn't enable the POP3/SMTP features of M$ Exchange so I can''t use that supposedly snappy email client.

Individuals: Red Hat's Fedora Core 2 is a free download.

Corporations: End users have just gotten used to Redmond''s products. You'll find more help-desk people who are able to support M$ Office from the start.

Krazymage 07/29/04 06:53:35 AM EDT

I'm just really befuddled as to what Sun expects to acheive with this Linux distro. (note I'm basing these opinions on screenshots, specs read from Sun's site, and others'' reviews - I won't waste my time installing this thing). For one thing, there's not much that's uniquely "Java" about this desktop system. Its a run o' the mill Linux distro, with Java preinstalled. Wow. Stop the presses.

On top of that, it's going to be competing directly with other Linux distros that have been around the block (RedHat, SuSE, Debian). Exactly what value is added to this JDS offering above and beyond those?

I do understand that they are targeting corporate use (because no sane home users would CHOOSE these klunky half-baked GUI desktops over a super slick Windows XP or OSX, even if the latter cost $500 per installation). I just really wonder if the ROI really washes out in the end when you have your corporate users struggly with inept user interfaces and GUI metaphors rather than getting their work done.

Normann Aa. Nielsen 07/29/04 03:29:22 AM EDT

Interresting! I have not particulary looked for a substitute for Windows since Windows XP finally seems to do almost all what OS/2 did (only demanding much more RAM and CPU cycles). I have tried misc. Linux-variations though, and my impression here has been that they are too nerdish, takes too long to install / bring to work and then they are still not good enough even for a private user. They are primarily time-wasters, IMHO. Your review of JDS seems therefore appropriate and I will wait another year before I''ll have a go on JDS myself. Stabillity is the word, useability is the phrase - transparrency is the thought!

William Zhang 07/29/04 02:56:33 AM EDT

very informative. good work! thanks!

Maryonne 07/29/04 12:48:10 AM EDT

This is the first time I get to know of JDS. Although I have not installed or try it, my feel is that since the installation is on upgrade, it might not be accurate. Even when we use the current windows or office software, if we were to upgrade, the errors are higher and easily encountered as compared to a fresh installation. Maybe, if this comment is based on a fresh (new) installation, it would be more valuable. Just my thoughts.

Cyberian 07/29/04 12:12:34 AM EDT

Wanting the JDS to compete with Windows, and actually HAVING a JDS that can do so are two different things. Philosophically, I'm all for it, but pragmatically, Sun still doesn't have a clue...and as long as 'Gilligan' McNealy keeps his hammy hands on the rudder, likely never will. The JDS still has the 'look and feel' of some garage or basement development effort, in spite of the millions Sun has already poured into it. In spite of McNealy's empty rhetoric of late, Sun still doesn't think 'software' will ever be a 'real' industry, and their attempts within the software realm proves their mindset. Not that they're wrong, mind you...SUN'S software never WILL be a 'real' industry, judging by the fruits of their labor thus far.

Greg Kilgore 07/28/04 09:01:24 PM EDT

I installed JDS 2.0 on my Dell Inspirion without any hitches. I have also installed on my self-built desktop as well. I am confused as to the issues you all are talking about. JDS v20 is very stable for both platforms I installed it to.

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