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Sun Wants to Make Linux 3D

Beyond the Second Dimension

  • March 22, 2004
  • By Ron Miller

Sun Microsystems, a company that has been making noise lately in the Linux desktop market with StarOffice 7 and Java Desktop, is currently working on an experimental 3D successor to Java Desktop that they believe will change the way we interact with computers, and in the end elevate the popularity of Linux in general.

Looking Glass is still very much in the planning stage, but a demonstration on the Sun Web site offers a glimpse of what it could be capable of.

In the demonstration, Jonathan Schwartz, vice president of Sun's software group, increases the transparency of a window so that you can see through it, turns a window on its side so that it sits at the edge of a screen like a book on a book shelf, turns a window completely around and leaves a note on the back, and takes a database of CDs presented as physical CDs, that you flip through, reading the labels, just as you would with real CDs, until you locate the one you want.

Juan Carlos Soto, the head of Project Looking Glass says one of the company's motivations for this operating system is that most windowing environments were developed in the 70s and 80s and were designed for the limitations of the hardware at the time including computational, graphics system and memory limitations.

"One of the things we wanted to do was revisit the paradigm that's been around for a long time and unlock some of this [updated] capability of the hardware and create a more compelling and more useable experience for the desktop users. We believe the Linux desktop is a compelling desktop and there's no reason it should be standing still or following any other platform for features for the user, so we embarked on Looking Glass and we are rapidly working to formalize the implementation," Soto says.

Sun saw great potential in Looking Glass from its beginnings as an experimental proof of concept. "When we saw the prototype and saw a great opportunity, we built an engineering team around the idea. What we are doing is dissecting the original concept and rebuilding it using traditional desktop graphics technologies," Soto says.

While it certainly sounds like an attractive approach to an operating system, analysts say it's too early to say what impact (if any) Looking Glass could have on Linux or the general operating system market. Tom Murphy, senior program director at Meta Group, wants to know what they will do with it.

"I think in and of itself, it has a big wow effect. It's cute to see these things like 3D animations of stuff moving around and think of collaborative space, but how does it make my business more productive?" Murphy wonders. He believes, they need to tie the product to business productivity to make it successful. "As it's shown (in the demonstration), if it's not going to make me more productive, then who cares?"

Steve O'Grady, an analyst at Red Monk, agrees to some extent, but he thinks it could give the current crop of operating systems a run for its money. "Its eye 'candiness' certainly rivals Apple and what I've seen of Longhorn. In relation to the current Linux interfaces, Gnome or KDE, the overall quality of the display is a significant improvement. In terms of what it means to Linux, it depends on how it's released, and on what form it takes," O'Grady says.

O'Grady believes that an operating system like Looking Glass could give Linux an edge on the desktop. "Much of the current crop of Linux offering are certainly competitive and solid in their own right, but don't have the same wow factor. With Looking Glass that would change and people would say with that UI, it is one of the best in the game," O'Grady says.

Sun has always had an odd relationship with the open source community in the past with some not happy about Java licensing requirements and other complaints about their approach to Linux, and although distribution terms are still unclear, Sun is clearly making overtures to the Linux community regarding Looking Glass.

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata thinks the licensing decision will be a key to the success or failure of Looking Glass. "They would have to make a compelling case not to be open. There is a lot of controversy around Java not being open source, and they have good arguments, but it would be a more difficult argument to make around a user interface. I would fear if they did that, it would significantly undermine its adoption," Haff says.

Sun's Soto says it's too soon to say how they'll deal with licensing and distribution issues, but they are having internal discussions about it and all options are on the table. Sun has made it clear they want Looking Glass to be a part of the open source community and to get open source community buy-in on the project. He says, they are just beginning to engage third parties in discussions, so they can build Looking Glass without undermining core Linux elements.

"We are reviewing the upcoming expert meetings around this technology and trying to get on the agenda for the relevant ones and include larger segments of the community," Soto says.

To that end, Sun will be traveling to meetings to discuss Looking Glass developments with members of the Linux community beginning at the end of April at the X Windows Systems Developer's Meeting to be held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 28-30.

As an organization, Sun appears to be taking the project very seriously bringing in resources from around the company to participate in Looking Glass development including operating system experts, graphics experts and Java experts among others. Given their recent financial issues such as having their bond rating lowered to junk status by Standard and Poors earlier this month, it's important for them to have a high-profile desktop project like Looking Glass to show that they are on the cutting edge of Linux development.

"The company sees [this project] as fairly important. We view ourselves as innovators. We want to push the desktop to be as compelling and innovative as possible and Looking Glass is one example of that," Soto says.

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