China and the Year of the GNU/Linux Desktop

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It's an old joke by now that this year will be the year of the GNU/Linux desktop – just like last year, and the year before that. But now there's a new twist: that this year will be the year of the GNU/Linux smartphone – with the difference that it's really happening.

That's mainly being driven by the huge success of the Linux-based Android system, but it's not the only open source system here. There's also webOS and MeeGo, both of which have their loyal fans. What that means is that whichever of these takes off, the open source world will benefit.

Although some might complain that we already have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to open source mobile operating systems, it seems that we might be getting another one:

Chinese search engine giant Baidu is considering developing and releasing a mobile phone operating system, according to Chinese media reports.

The effort would be led by former Google employees who defected to Baidu after Google defied the Chinese government by ending self-censorship of its search results. The report comes amid other Baidu moves to break into new areas as it seeks growth outside of search, such as e-commerce, online video, social networking, and even browsers.

Few people know details of Baidu's plans in the mobile operating system department, but reports said the company is working toward releasing an open source system.

If so, it would directly compete with Google's Android operating system. New Android handsets are being released quickly in China, and Baidu would like its own operating system to help give it an edge in the increasingly important mobile search market.

This is noteworthy for (at least) two reasons. First, Baidu is the Google of the Chinese search market (Google has always been the challenger, not the leader, and its recent laudable effort to offer unrestricted access to Chinese users has led to it falling further behind). That means Baidu wields incredible influence in any market that it enters. Secondly, the Chinese mobile sector is huge:

China's mobile phone users topped 800 million by the end of June, said Zhang Feng, an official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), Tuesday.

Presumably, most of those users have fairly simple devices. And most, almost certainly, would upgrade if they could afford it. An open source mobile operating system is more likely to enable mobile handset manufacturers to offer affordable models, especially one that comes from a powerful Chinese brand like Baidu.

If Baidu does come out with its own Android rival, that could help to achieve two things. It would finally take open source into the Chinese mainstream, and help to ensure that Linux unequivocally becomes the world's leading operating system for smartphones - if not on the desktop.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.