2015: the Year of Open Source with Chinese Characteristics?

The rise of China is hardly a secret - by some metrics, the Chinese economy is already the largest in the world. But in recent months, it has become clear that Chinese technology companies are also about to have a major impact on the rest of the planet - and that includes the world of open source.

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The rise of China is hardly a secret - by some metrics, the Chinese economy is already the largest in the world. But in recent months, it has become clear that Chinese technology companies are also about to have a major impact on the rest of the planet - and that includes the world of open source.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is that of Alibaba. This ecommerce company facilitates consumer-to-consumer sales (like eBay), but also business-to-business and business-to-consumer. A sense of its scale can be gathered from the fact that on a single day in November this year it sold around $9 billion of goods to end-users. Its recent US IPO raised $25 billion, making it the biggest in history. Alibaba has its own operating system, called Aliyun, a variant of Android - and thus Linux-based. In 2012, the company said it hoped that Aliyun would become the "Android of China", but sales of smartphones using Aliyun have been relatively modest.

Instead, it is a complete outsider, only founded in 2010, that has taken the Chinese smartphone market by storm: Xiaomi. It too uses a Linux-based Android variant, called MIUI. Its success can be measured by the fact that just this week it confirmed that it had raised $1.1 billion, giving the company a valuation of $45 billion. A story on Techcrunch explains:

The company will likely use the capital to increase sales of its smartphones in its key growth markets of India, Southeast Asia, Brazil, and Mexico. In 2013, Xiaomi said it sold about 19 million phones, a number it hopes will more than double to 40 million units by the end of this year. In October, the company became the world’s third-largest smartphone vendor by shipment volume, according to both Strategy Analytics and IDC.

The fact that Xiaomi has risen to third place behind Samsung and Apple gives an idea of the speed at which China's tech sector is developing. Behind Xiaomi is the older company Lenovo, probably best known as a supplier of ThinkPad laptops, a business it bought from IBM in 2005. It also sells Android smartphones, and recently acquired Motorola Mobility from Google for just under $3 billion. Other reasonably familiar Chinese brands offering Android phones includes Huawei and ZTE.

However, these large companies are just one side of the Chinese open source world. Much harder to pin down is the extraordinary "shanzhai" culture. Although this is often regarded as simply a huge number of fly-by-night companies working on pirated and imitation brand goods, particularly digital ones, it has developed into an interesting Chinese variant of the open source culture.

One of the authorities on this culture is the amazing open hardware hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang, lead engineer for the open "Chumby" device. In a post from 2013, he describes some of the features of what he dubs "gongkai":

Welcome to the Galapagos of Chinese “open” source. I call it “gongkai”. Gongkai is the transliteration of “open” as applied to “open source”. I feel it deserves a term of its own, as the phenomenon has grown beyond the so-called “shanzhai” and is becoming a self-sustaining innovation ecosystem of its own.

Just as the Galapagos Islands is a unique biological ecosystem evolved in the absence of continental species, gongkai is a unique innovation ecosystem evolved with little western influence, thanks to political, language, and cultural isolation.

Of course, just as the Galapagos was seeded by hardy species that found their way to the islands, gongkai was also seeded by hardy ideas that came from the west. These ideas fell on the fertile minds of the Pearl River delta, took root, and are evolving. Significantly, gongkai isn’t a totally lawless free-for-all. It’s a network of ideas, spread peer-to-peer, with certain rules to enforce sharing and to prevent leeching. It’s very different from Western IP concepts, but I’m trying to have an open mind about it.

I’m curious to study this new gongkai ecosystem. For sure, there will be critics who adhere to the tenets of Western IP law that will summarily reject the notion of alternate systems that can nourish innovation and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, it’s these tenets that lock open hardware into technology several generations old, as we wait for patents to expire and NDAs to lift before gaining access to the latest greatest technology. After all, 20 years is an eternity in high tech.

In a new post published yesterday, Huang describes in fascinating detail his efforts to bring some of the results of the gongkai culture into traditional open source. Here's what he sees as the advantages of the gongkai approach compared to one hamstrung by concerns about infringing on patents and copyrights:

Chinese entrepreneurs, on the other hand, churn out new phones at an almost alarming pace. Phone models change on a seasonal basis. Entrepreneurs experiment all the time, integrating whacky features into phones, such as cigarette lighters, extra-large battery packs (that can be used to charge another phone), huge buttons (for the visually impaired), reduced buttons (to give to children as emergency-call phones), watch form factors, and so forth. This is enabled because very small teams of engineers can obtain complete design packages for working phones – case, board, and firmware – allowing them to fork the design and focus only on the pieces they really care about.

And here's how Huang hopes to bridge gongkai and open source:

We did some research into the legal frameworks and challenges around absorbing Gongkai IP into the Western ecosystem, and we believe we’ve found a path to repatriate some of the IP from Gongkai into proper Open Source. However, I must interject with a standard disclaimer: we’re not lawyers, so we’ll tell you our beliefs but don’t construe them as legal advice. Our intention is to exercise our right to reverse engineer in a careful, educated fashion to increase the likelihood that, if push comes to shove, the courts will agree with our actions.

It's a fascinating post, well worth reading: it gives a hint of the real excitement that exists in the world of gongkai - and of Chinese open source technology, in all its forms. I predict we'll soon be hearing much more about this here in the West, and I look forward to writing about it in 2015.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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