Homegrown developers look to unseat Microsoft’s dominant OS

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2014-10-22 19:58:01

An alliance of homegrown Linux-based operating system developers hopes to replace Microsoft Windows within the next two years as China looks to tighten control over sensitive cyber security technology, and change a status quo that has seen it reliant on foreign companies for computer operating systems.

After tinkering with the term "de-Microsofting," Ni Guangnan decided instead to go with "de-Windowsify." "We call this a de-Windowsifying movement," he said.

Speaking last Saturday at a temporary office in a residential neighborhood in Zhongguancun, Beijing's answer to Silicon Valley,  the 75-year-old computer science professor and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering talked about his ambitious project to bring together all of China's homegrown operating system (OS) developers in an alliance to replace Microsoft Windows in one to two years.

Earlier this year, Ni established the China Information Terminal Operating System Alliance, a non-profit umbrella organization for OS and software companies. The alliance's goal is to boost China's Internet security and change a status quo that has seen China reliant on foreign companies for computer operating systems.

A total 15 domestic OS developers have joined the alliance, including Standard Software, headquartered in Shanghai, Beijing's Linx-Tech, Dalian's Wujia Wanjing Information Industry Group, Guangxi's Imind Software and Wuhan's Deepin Technology. "Pretty much all of China's OS developers have joined," Ni said.

Ni said none of these OS developers have the capability to rival Windows alone. This is why an alliance is necessary to pool resources and consolidate research and development capabilities.

Striking while the iron is hot

"Now is the most vulnerable time for Microsoft in China, and the best time for homegrown software companies to beat it," Ni said.

Microsoft has suffered multiple setbacks in China this year. Pressure on foreign tech companies in China intensified following former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of a US global surveillance program and China's tightening of compliance requirements for anti-monopoly laws.

In May, China's government procurement department banned the installation of Windows 8 software on government PCs for security reasons. Two months later, the US company was targeted in an anti-trust probe launched by China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

"When Microsoft Corp's chief executive Satya Nadella visited China in September, no high officials from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology received him," Ni said.

Meanwhile, the central government has expressed its support for homegrown software.

This February, it established a panel overseeing the Internet and information security headed by President Xi Jinping, and with Li Keqiang as its vice director. The move was seen by many as a sign of the central government's intent to tighten its grip on cyber security and strengthen the information sector.

Sources told the Global Times that as early as last December, Xi had signed documents calling for the development of China's own operating system.

"President Xi Jinping's emphasis on cyber security is our main support," Ni said.

Li Zhensheng, director of Standard Software's marketing center, agreed, saying, "We've received an increasing number of inquiries and orders this year following the ban on Windows 8."

China is not the only country that is trying to migrate from Windows to Linux. The government of Munich, Germany, switched to LiMux, a Linux-based operating system in 2005, after Microsoft stopped supporting Windows NT 4, which the government had used previously. "It was from this experience of being totally at the mercy of an external party that we wanted to take the road to more independence," said Florian Schiessl, head of the project, according to a report by European Commission.

Standard Software, jointly owned by the China Electronics Corporation and China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, is widely regarded as China's most successful operating system developer. The company's NeoKylin OS is used in government, national defense, public security, finance, education, taxation, auditing and transportation, Li told the Global Times.

This August, US-based PC manufacturer Dell announced it has signed deals with Standard Software to preinstall NeoKylin in its business computers, including Latitude business notebooks and OptiPlex business desktops, in an effort to "meet the diversified demand of Chinese customers," according to a press release by Dell.

At the time, commentators said one of Dell's goals was to please Chinese authorities. In the most recent revision of China's procurement regulations, bidders who offer laptops preinstalled with Chinese Linux-based operating systems can get two extra points in their bid scores, according to China Government Procurement News.

Building an ecosystem

Despite Microsoft's setbacks in China, Windows still dominates China's OS market, a situation that is not likely to change soon.

According to independent website analytics company StatCounter, over 97 percent of computer users in China accessed the Internet from a computer with Windows installed this September. Windows 7 is the most popular OS in China, powering 55.07 percent of China's PCs. Windows XP, which no longer receives technical support from Microsoft, is still installed on 35-44 percent of computers.

In contrast, Linux, the operating system upon which most homegrown OSs are based, is nowhere to be seen in the statistics, with a market share of less than 1 percent.

"One of the major reasons why homegrown OSs have such a small market share is that there are too few third-party applications that can be run on them. [Building a homegrown app store would aim] to solve this problem," Cao Dong, secretary-general of Ni's new alliance, told the Global Times.

Standard Software's Li Zhensheng echoes Cao: "There are millions of applications out there for Windows, each fulfilling different needs, while there only a few thousand for Linux systems. This is our main disadvantage."

This is why the first brainchild of the alliance is an app store that will serve all of China's homegrown Linux-based OSs, as long as they all adhere to the same technical standards.

Ni said the app store, whose registration pending government approval, will also help standardize China's OS market and help build a healthy business ecosystem, which he believes is vital for the industry's growth.

Ni said he is counting on the central government to promote homegrown OSs for government use. "We hope to be included in China's government procurement catalogue, which will boost government use of our system. Commercialization is the second step," he said.

"At the end of the day, I expect the 15 operating systems to merge into one or two operating systems, while the rest of the developers can shift into providing other relevant services," Ni said.

Ni's project was met with scorn online. Yuan Meng, a professor at Peking University, said on his personal blog that Ni's plan to replace Windows with a homegrown OS is "a daydream." "Microsoft doesn't call itself an 'American Operating System,'" he said, implying that patriotism has nothing to do with making a good product.

Meanwhile, some Net users complained about their unhappy experiences with homegrown OSs. Mr Di, a high-school teacher in Xiamen, Fujian province, said he has used both Red Flag, a classic Chinese OS, and NeoKylin OS. "Both of them resemble Windows too much and lack originality," he told the Global Times.

Others, however, are more optimistic about China's developers. Sha Song, a playwright working in television drama in Beijing, uses NeoKylin OS in his writing and likes the "loneliness" of using a Linux system. "It's [good] enough if you only use the office suite, browse the Web and check e-mails. But other than these, there are barely any other applications available," he said. He said the system could attract more users if more applications were developed.

Reasons for caution

Han Weili, a data security expert and vice dean at Fudan University's Software School, urged caution, saying that China's homegrown operating systems are not necessarily more secure than their foreign alternatives, due to their developers' relatively weak research and development capabilities and the lack of a strong business ecosystem supporting them. "For example, many of China's operating systems lack a bug detecting mechanism," Han said.

"We know that a foreign operating system may offer back-door access to its government for surveillance or spying purposes. The situation with a Chinese operating system can be even worse if it is badly designed, because the flaws will enable not just one foreign government to access it, but many governments," Han said.

While the current government emphasis on data security is an opportunity for China's homegrown operating system developers, Han said security should not be their only focus. "What's most important is if the market welcomes it. For individual users, security is not their biggest concern. User experience, UI, hardware compatibility and the industry as a whole are more important in determining whether an operating system can succeed," he said.

Newspaper headline: Windows of opportunity

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