Sun Microsystems has just rolled out its first Linux-based desktop software and is working to secure deals with governments and businesses to deploy it, but the company isn't targeting Microsoft.

"First and foremost, the objective of the Java Desktop System (JDS) isn't to go after Microsoft," said Peder Ulander, Sun's director of marketing for Desktop Solutions.

Ulander was speaking at the SunNetwork Berlin conference, the company's first major conference in Europe, where the market for Linux-based desktop software is seen as much stronger than in the US.

Asia is also a ripe market for open source software, as Sun's recent deal with China's China Standard Software Co. Ltd. demonstrates. At the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last month, Sun Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy announced an agreement with the Chinese government-backed group to roll out desktop software based on JDS to potentially millions of users in the country.

According to Ulander, the China deal is just the first in what Sun expects to be a series of government wins for it's Linux-based desktop.

There's a huge digital divide in developing counties and those that don't have technology don't have it because they can't afford it, Ulander said.

"The overall cost of (Microsoft's Windows operating systems) coupled with all the viruses and worms are driving support for Linux," he said.

Indeed, a handful of developing countries have recently spurned Microsoft in favour of promoting open source. What's more, IDC predicts that Linux will be the fastest growing operating environment over the next five years, while Windows has hit a plateau with some 98 percent of the desktop operating system market.

Backed with support from major vendors and popularity on college campuses, Linux will thrive, IDC said in a research report released September 2003.

However, the analyst firm predicted that Microsoft will not sit passively, but instead, "can be expected to compete vigorously, even using its huge installed base as a competitive tool to deflect Linux's ability to penetrate the industry."

While Ulander wouldn't signal Microsoft as a target for its Linux push, McNealy made his intentions to poke at Microsoft's desktop dominance more clear.

"Sun is back as a desktop company," McNealy said. He then encouraged attendees to buy the company's open source StarOffice software as a Christmas stocking stuffer.

"Allow your people to break free of the Microsoft monopoly!" he quipped.

Banking on the China deal's potential of rolling out tens of millions of Linux-based desktops, Sun could become the largest Linux company in the world, McNealy said.

By leading a desktop Linux push, however, it's difficult to say that Sun is not going after Microsoft

Ulander, for example, explained how Java Desktop System's user interface was designed to mimic the Windows operating environment so users would immediately be able to navigate the application.

Where the "Start" button is on the Windows desktop, for example, JDS has a "Launch" button which serves the same purpose. The "My Computer" icon in Windows appears as a "This Computer" icon on JDS.

"We're more accurate," McNealy quipped about the "This Computer " icon.

It's these similar usability features, application integration and interoperability with Windows that Sun says is the reason why JDS is the first really widely deployable Linux desktop software.

The version of JDS that launched this week is a preview version, Ulander said, and is being offered at US$50 per user to attract early adopters. The next version, due out early next year, will be priced at $100 per user and will include new features and Java development tools, he said.

Thomas Jahn, supply chain division manager for steel manufacturer ThyssenKrupp Stahl, said that he was thinking of deploying Java Desktop System in his company but needed further reassurance that the open source software was secure.

McNealy, Ulander and others took pains to convince attendees like Jahn that the software was actually more secure than Windows.

"I'm not saying (JDS) isn't vulnerable to viruses and worms ... but let's face it, 90 to 95 percent of worms are created to exploit the Windows environment," Ulander said.

Already having worked on usability and security features of the Linux-based desktop system, Ulander said that future versions will include management tools to help customers with wide deployment. The market for JDS isn't home users or high-end business users, but task-oriented and transaction workers, Ulander said. Sun is targeting both small and large companies, however, for which rolling out hundreds of Windows deployments or upgrades would simply be too costly.

Microsoft may not be a direct target of the desktop Linux push, but chances are Sun wouldn't mind if it was the greatest casualty.