(News Factor) Linux has less than a 2 percent share of the enterprise desktop market, but Sun Microsystems hopes to change that. In September, Sun will launch Mad Hatter, its Linux desktop suite designed to use low price and easy reconfigurability to penetrate the desktop market.

Sun is not shy about attacking the operating system Mad Hatter must displace to win market share. Sun has announced it is offering early registration for the new product, “in response to yet another massive security vulnerability in Microsoft’s Windows operating system (the MSBlast Internet worm).”

Microsoft is about to end support for earlier versions of its desktop OS, notes Peder Ulander, Sun’s marketing director for desktop solutions. “We just finished a study of Fortune 2000 CIOs, and 45 percent said they were going to be looking for an alternative in the next six months,” Ulander told NewsFactor. “And one of the leading things they’re investigating is Linux on the desktop for certain segments of the business.”

Completing its full frontal assault on the dominant OS, Sun says it will dramatically undercut Microsoft prices. Repeating an offer made by another Sun executive, Ulander said that “whatever Microsoft gives you that special deal at, we’ll cut it in half.”

Inside the Hatter

Mad Hatter includes the StarOffice suite, which reads and writes all Microsoft file formats, as well as Sun ONE mail, calendaring and instant messaging software. It offers connectivity to existing Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes messaging services. “It’s a fully integrated desktop stack,” Ulander says.

The software is designed with Sun’s Java platform and includes support for Java Card for smartcard security. German Linux vendor SuSE will contribute some of the code for Mad Hatter.

Using third-party translation software like WINE, Mad Hatter users can run Windows versions of applications like QuickBooks and Adobe software, Ulander said.

Easy as Windows

Lest anyone think that migrating to Linux will be difficult for the average office worker, Ulander dispels this notion.

Mad Hatter provides “all the look and feel, all the key integration, and all the shortcuts that you would expect within a traditional Windows-like environment,” he said.

“Even the finger keys will work, like ‘control copy,’ ‘control paste’ and all that stuff.”

He also points to a recent study comparing usability between Windows and Linux desktop environments, in which two groups were each given ten tasks. “In the Windows environment, it took 44 minutes; in the Linux environment, it took 45 minutes,” Ulander says.

Uphill Battle

For all of its selling points, can this new desktop suite gain traction against the corporate market’s favorite OS?

Possibly, IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky told NewsFactor, depending on which sector Sun targets.

Among a group of workers Kusnetzky calls “knowledge workers” — employees who use a large array of software conceptually — the answer is no, he said. “Anything that comes out that doesn’t support all the tools they use, they will not have much use for.”

Best Target

Among an employee group Kusnetzy calls “transactional workers” — workers who do clerical-type work — Sun’s chance of success is greater, he said.

“As long as the client software for the server-centric transaction systems is available, then it would be possible [for Sun] to say, ‘How would you like a system that doesn’t have all the licensing encumbrances — a lower cost for software acquisition, potentially a lower cost for hardware — and can run the client side part of your transactional applications quite nicely?'”

Gartner analyst Michael Silver echoed this opinion. “Sun needs to be very targeted at who they’re trying to sell this to,” he told NewsFactor, “because we don’t see Linux as a benefit for everybody at this point.” The company is likely to have more success targeting the clerical enterprise segment than analytical workers, he agreed.

Preaching to the Converted

Sun may enjoy an advantage in one segment of the enterprise market: those companies that already use Sun products. “We’re going to tie this into our Orion project,” Ulander said, referring to the company’s consolidation of the components of the Sun OS into a single operating environment.

Sun will offer Orion on a per-head basis to companies for US$100 per user per year, he said. Mad Hatter will be the desktop component of this strategy.

This appeal to its installed base may help promote Mad Hatter, Kusnetzy said. However, “Sun would have to show that the transactional applications that the organizations are using support that client.”