China: Local software for local people

Part of a special feature on open source and developing nations, this report looks at what the Chinese government is doing on alternative software.

Part of a special feature on open source and developing nations,a look at what the Chinese government is doing on alternative software.

Spotlight project:
The Chinese government plans to put more than 140,000 Linux PCs in primary and secondary schools across the Jiangsu province. The deal was announced by Sun Wah Linux in October 2005 and is thought to be the largest Linux desktop rollout in Asia.

Summary
Until China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, pirated copies of Microsoft software were in common use in the country, including in government agencies.

Now it's part of the WTO, China must replace unlicensed copies of Microsoft software. It is likely to replace at least some of these Windows installations with Linux.

Chinese local and national governments have started installing open-source software, and those migrations involving Linux have been given the most publicity.

National government agencies using Linux include the National Ministry of Science, the Ministry of Statistics and the National Labour Unit. Local governments using Linux include the municipal government of the Chinese capital, Beijing, which is using 2,000 Linux desktops.

Aside from Linux, other open-source products are supported by the Chinese government. These include NeoShine, a Chinese variant of OpenOffice.org, which is on the Chinese government's preferred list for government office productivity products.

The Chinese government has mandated the use of China-produced software in government departments, which has worked as a "strong driver" for open source, said Andrea DiMaio, a research director at analyst firm Gartner. However, this law does not prevent the use of Chinese proprietary software and does not appear to be strictly enforced--Beijing has reportedly bought a "substantial quantity"of Microsoft software, for example.

The Chinese government has spoken of its support for open source on numerous occasions and has funded a number of open-source initiatives and research projects. Last year, the Chinese Ministry of Information founded the Open Source Software Promotion Alliance to encourage the development of China's open source software industry. The government is also working with a number of other countries on open-source projects. For example, it is working with the South Korean and Japanese governments to develop open-source alternatives to Microsoft Windows, and is working with the French Atomic Energy Commission to develop a Linux-based platform for online services and communication applications.

The Chinese government's enthusiasm for open-source software is partly due to lower cost and partly to benefit the local industry, DiMaio of Gartner said. But, there are also cultural and political reasons for its pro-open-source policy, Redmonk analyst James Governor said.

"There is a lot of distrust of American imperialism in China," Governor said. "As Linux is not owned by an American company, it appeals to them. China also has communitarian instincts, which open source plays into"

There is also concern among some members of the Chinese government that Microsoft software contains secretly embedded code that the U.S. government could manipulate, which would allow the U.S. to bring down China's computing infrastructure.

Madanmohan Rao, a research director at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre agreed that anti-Americanism is a factor in China's promotion of open source. "The Chinese government is a bit paranoid about having proprietary code; it is worried about a back door into its systems," he said.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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