The second day of the 2007 Open Source China Open Source World started off really badly for me. Somehow, I overlooked that the program was rescheduled from 9.00 to 8.30 in the morning. This alone would have been no problem, because I'm usually very early, but to my surprise, several taxi drivers did not know the venue, although I had the hotel's visiting card with me. Running out of time, I finally managed to convince one of the drivers to phone the hotel. OK, that did the trick, but I missed the speeches of Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, whom I consider to be very interesting to listen to.
Fortunately, I arrived in time to attend the subsequent International Expert Roundtable Conference. Among the participants were Jim Zemlin, Mark Shuttleworth, venture capitalist Larry Augustin, Apache founder Brian Behlendorf, Linux Professional Institute CEO Jim Lacey, Professor Lu Shouqun, chairman of China Open Source Promotion Union, Dr. C. Joseph Lee, Microsoft China CTO, Sin-Yaw Wang VP and director of Sun China Engineering & Research Institute to name just a few.
The way the discussion went was not too unexpected. The Chinese participants, most of them high-level representatives of public institutions, emphasized the efforts by the government and local administrations to support and promote OSS. The reason is quite clear. China wants and needs a strong software industry, but it still faces a huge gap in productivity and know-how, compared to the United States, Europe and India. To close this gap, using OSS products as a base for progress seems to be quite logical, because it enables the growing IT industry to get into business without starting from scratch.
As for the foreign VIPs and experts, they touched on issues that are not really new. First of all, they said, China should put more effort into educating its software engineers and they can do that by using OSS software as the main content of the curriculum. They also criticized the Chinese administration a little for supporting OSS with a top-down approach, because most efforts are driven by public institutions. They wished China to support private enterprises, especially start-ups, instead. Last but not least, Mark Shuttleworth and Jim Zemlin raised the well-known issue that the world is waiting for China's re-contributions to OSS communities. The fact is there's not much visible partipation by the Chinese in OSS projects yet. And again, there was the conclusion that to address this problem, both sides have to overcome the language barrier.
OK, all this is not really false at all. But, I think there's still no real understanding of the real issues and challenges regarding the Chinese software market. Alright, so the different languages are a big problem indeed. Nevertheless, this is far from being the real barrier. So, what else is the problem?
First of all, the Chinese software industry, as well is the Chinese OSS community, has just started to become globally significant. Consequently, the education system for large numbers of top-quality software engineers is also still in its initial phase. As a result, there is a huge lack of highly qualified developers for the Chinese software market. And in terms of the availability of experienced staff who can drive projects, that is close to zero. And, if there are any high-profile experts, they end up joining the foreign IT companies.
It's generally the same story for graduates of China's top universities. A handful of international enterprises generally absorbs the Chinese software elite. The consequence is that the local Chinese software industry ends up with a poor management ratio and young, inexperienced engineers. Therefore, it's no wonder that China's OSS re-contribution through Chinese OSS companies is at a low level, because productivity is a big issue and the younger engineers generally lack experience, self-confidence and initiative to reach out to the OSS communities.
Start-ups, as suggested by the foreign participants of the discussion, can definitely grow in the current OSS ecosystem. All the small and midsize tech businesses that I know struggle to find the right personnel for their projects.
Another issue that the foreign experts overlooked is the structure of the Chinese society. They seem to have forgotten that excluding the glittering spots of growing prosperity in the major cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai or Beijing, more than 80 percent of the Chinese population are not plugged into the digital information age yet. Somebody has to care and ensure they are not left behind as the country progresses.
For me, it's hard to see an alternative for the governmental top-down support of China's OSS community at the moment.
Last but not least, I want to thank the China Open Source Promotion Union and their Chairman Professor Lu Shouqun for organizing such an interesting event.