Going bonkers in Beijing for Linux

Is Linux the OS of choice for discerning Chinese digerati? China's Ministry of Education thinks so -- it's about to invest big-time in the alternative operating system.

China's Ministry of Education is preparing to announce "significant" procurements of software for the Linux operating system, according to an executive involved with the plan.

It would mark Beijing's most concrete move so far to promote the free OS as a preferred alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows.

In anticipation of the move, Corel Corp. has signed an agreement appointing GraphOn Corp. as the exclusive distributor of Corel software products in China's giant education sector. GraphOn President Walt Keller said an announcement about the ministry's software procurement is expected within the next 30 days.

Ottawa-based Corel (corl), a leading software producer, is eager to take advantage of the new market for Linux-compatible applications. One of the main products it is offering is WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux, a rival to Microsoft Office for Windows. Linux can be purchased in China at a nominal price or downloaded free from the Internet.

China's education system could be a pivotal entry point for Linux because it would make a whole generation of Chinese students accustomed to the OS, rather than Windows.

"There are more people in school [from kindergarten] through 12th grade, than we have people in the U.S.," Keller said, noting that there are 260 million primary- and secondary-school students in the mainland.

California-based GraphOn (gojo), which provides large-enterprise software solutions to such clients as IBMs Corp. (ibm) and Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson, hasn't focused on the education sector in Western countries because the markets are relatively small, Keller said. But in China, "they make a decision on a massive scale," he said, adding that his firm has been demonstrating Linux-based systems to the central government.

He said government officials have shown a strong preference for Linux because of its cost advantage and open platform, compared with Windows, which is proprietary to Microsoft (msft).

Analysts say Beijing doesn't want to become as dependent on Windows as other countries, because of concern there may be so-called back doors in the system's source code that could compromise computer security in sensitive government and defense offices.

By contrast, Linux, as an open source program, can be examined down to the last line of code, freely exchanged and upgraded by programmers around the world.

While Corel and other companies such as Red Hat Inc. (rhat) distribute their own versions of Linux, they cannot copyright them. Prices of these versions, therefore, tend to be much lower than Windows.