by Maria Trombly (with Wendy Yu) and Sumner Lemon

Open Source – China’s Bet on Linux

Oct 15, 20053 mins

As China prepares to become a full member of the World Trade Organization, the Beijing government is trying to prove to the West that it is serious about reducing software piracy. And so China’s government agencies and businesses are turning to Linux as their desktop operating system of choice, a trend with potential to influence how the world uses the open-source software.

Recently Linux has become increasingly popular as a server operating system but has been slower to catch on at the desktop due to the difficulties IT departments have finding or developing enterprise-quality Linux desktop applications. According to Gartner, only about 1 percent of companies in the United States and Europe currently use Linux on the desktop, and only 3.2 percent are expected to by 2008.

Linux appeals to users in China because it’s free, it can be deployed without running afoul of international copyright agreements and it is easily customized to fit local needs. Because China has 1.3 billion citizens who are potential end users, the country’s widespread adoption of desktop Linux will push Linux developers to create better desktop software, says Dan Kusnetzky, VP of system software research with IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher).

Although China isn’t unique in its focus on desktop Linux—Kusnetzky notes some pilot projects in Europe (the city of Munich, for example, and the Banca Popolare di Milano in Italy) and in South America (among government agencies in Brazil and Venezuela)—”anytime there are large-scale installations, it has an impact on what the open-source community knows how to do.”

According to China’s Ministry of Information Industry (MII), almost 70 percent of all software purchases last year were of Linux-based products. Meanwhile, provincial governments, installed 45,000 desktops with Linux operating systems.

Now private businesses are following suit. Local government agencies are subject to a national mandate to install legal copies of software by the end of this year, says Qi Zhang, who heads MII’s electronics and information products department.

Early adopters of desktop Linux include major enterprises such as government-owned railways and telecom companies, says Chris Zhao, president of Red Flag, a major Chinese Linux vendor. Tokyo-based Turbolinux recently announced an enterprisewide deployment with China’s largest commercial bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Chinese users are running open-source versions of Office as well as homegrown software designed for specific applications, such as the software used by bank tellers.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is considering requiring that government agencies use open-source software. Such a rule would indirectly benefit open-source software developers in China, because there are relatively few Chinese software companies that sell their own proprietary products. During the summer, Red Flag and several other open-source vendors formed a partnership to jointly develop software and, possibly, to merge. The relationship is considered essential for China’s software industry to compete internationally, according to Shouqun Lu, president of the China Open Source Software Promotion Union.

Meawhile, Novell plans to open a research and development center in Beijing by the end of the year. Lolley Luo Wei, Novell China’s marketing and channel director, says the company expects to expand its business in China.