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Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

Microsoft's China Syndrome

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It is a cliché to regard China as the most important technology market for the future. It is not only predicted to become the biggest economy in the world, it will probably do that rather sooner than many expected (although China’s notoriously unreliable economic statistics make it hard to be sure.) That makes the little matter of what operating system the country is running important not just for China, but for the entire software world.

The history of Linux in China is chequered. Android is doing extremely well there, even if it tends to be varieties that are more or less independent from Google (no bad thing.) But on the desktop, GNU/Linux has had a pretty disastrous showing. That’s strange, because you would think that the Chinese authorities would jump at the chance to adopt a free operating system that was independent of the US, and which could be inspected for NSA backdoors even before the current Snowden leaks showed why that would be a good idea. In theory, that may be so. But in practice, here’s why that never happened:

Gates shed some light on his own hard-nosed business philosophy. “Although about 3 million computers get sold every year in China, but people don't pay for the software,” he said. "Someday they will, though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade."

That was back in 1998, and showed Bill Gates taking a shrewdly pragmatic approach to the massive piracy of Microsoft software in China. And it paid off: not only did GNU/Linux fail to gain any significant foothold, but Windows became pretty much the de facto operating system of China. Which makes the following news all the more remarkable:

China has banned government use of Windows 8, Microsoft Corp’s latest operating system, a blow to a U.S. technology company that has long struggled with sales in the country.

The Central Government Procurement Center issued the ban on installing Windows 8 on Chinese government computers as part of a notice on the use of energy-saving products, posted on its website last week.

The official Xinhua news agency said the ban was to ensure computer security after Microsoft ended support for its Windows XP operating system, which was widely used in China.

On the face of it, that’s a pretty staggering blow for Microsoft. But the reasons given for the move are strange. “As part of a notice on the use of energy-saving products” and “to ensure computer security after Microsoft ended support for its Windows XP operating system”: wouldn’t those be reasons for moving off XP and on to Windows 8? So there seems to be more here than meets the eye, which is why I’ve not posted about this before. However, the following story suggests that the Chinese computer industry certainly believes the ban is real:

With Windows 8 now banned from being installed on Chinese government computers, domestic operating system (OS) developers are itching for a niche in the world’s biggest PC market.

The country’s relatively large OS developers, including China Standard Software Co. and NFS China among others, have fresh opportunities, but their products face long and tough tests.

Windows 8 was banned from all desktops, laptops and tablet PCs purchased by central state organs last week. The announcement made by the Central Government Procurement Center did not make clear whether other Windows products were prohibited as well.

What makes that story particularly significant is that the source is Xinhua, the official Chinese government news agency. That means what it writes is in line with official policy. The story goes on:

China’s ambitious OS makers, that are developing products based on Linux, took immediate action in response to the government ban.

“There are differences between Windows and Linux, but we are trying to make consumers feel almost the same when using our products,” said China Standard Software Co. in a statement.

The company is a joint venture of China Electronics Corporation and China Electronic Technology Group Corporation, two state-owned enterprises.

China Standard Software Co. said its Neokylin Linux OS is “a safe and controlled product that meets the security demands for government, defense and other confidential fields”.

Again, what is interesting here is that it is a state-owned enterprise that is involved. Also important is the fact that it’s not just one project that’s attempting to fill the gap left by Windows:

Another OS maker NFS China, which is affiliated with the Software Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is also actively marketing its products featuring “high security and special design for Chinese consumers”.

Furthermore the article notes:

The country’s rapidly expanding tablet PC and smart television market also creates room for domestic OS makers as most of these devices run Linux-based Android OS, said Yang Yilong, vice CEO of IT company Knownsec.

The whole article is emphasising the advantages of Linux-based alternatives to Windows in a way that suggests the Chinese authorities may be serious this time. Certainly, it represents a huge opportunity for open source, and not just in China: if Linux-based systems start to spread there, it will be easy to offer them around the world at extremely low prices, which will be particularly attractive in emerging economies.

Microsoft’s importance in key markets like online and smartphones has been diminishing rapidly in recent years. China’s unexpected ban on Windows 8 could be the final blow that causes it to lose the desktop too – and with it, its remaining influence on the computing sector.

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