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Friday, June 04, 2004

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Another Look at Java Desktop System Release 2

Category: Operating Systems

Note: I originally intended to submit this to or some other online news agency. Since I've recently become quite busy with more lucrative writing, I've finally decided to release this since I'll never finish polishing it. Enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts.'s 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 Slashdotters 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 website. 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.

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