Open Season: Is Linux China Bound?
by Sam Williams
January 12, 2000
 
It's no great secret that the word "Linux" means different things to different people.

Wall Street traders interpret it as a synonym for "cash money," while the Internet hippie views it as the modern-day software equivalent of "make love not war." Still, the very fact so many seemingly disparate participants can gather together under the Linux tent is enough to make a moderate Republican weep in envy.

When it comes to taking the Linux Rorshach test, few responses have been quite so revealing -- or thought provoking -- as the recent quote that leaked its way onto the pages of the Yangcheng Evening News last week.

"Maintaining independence and keeping the initiative over our own operating system will be the 'Two Bombs and a Satellite' of the new era," stated an unnamed Chinese government official, referring to the domestically developed Red Flag Linux, a distribution that had previously only surfaced in news releases by Compaq Inc., a U.S. co-sponsor.

The statement, which came near the end of a news report suggesting that the Chinese government was contemplating a ban on Microsoft's Windows 2000 in all government ministries, makes a historical allusion to the nuclear and space race triumphs of the 1960s and 1970s that catapulted China to the forefront of world power. Citing both security and nationalistic concerns, the Evening News' sources said the government would instead use the homegrown, freely licensed Red Flag Linux.

Although named officials within both Microsoft and China's Ministry of Information Industry spent the rest of the week in a mad scramble to squash the rumor, the report culminated months of speculation about a possible endorsement of Linux as the Chinese government's "official" operating system.

One person who wasn't surprised by the Yangcheng article was Walt Keller, founder and president of Campbell, Calif.-based Graphon Corp. In November, Graphon, a provider of thin-client tools designed to blur the barriers between Windows-based applications and non-Windows based operating systems, created a stir within the online Linux community by announcing a partnership with Sundiro and state-owned Minmetals Townlord Information Technology, Inc. The partnership would set the groundwork for a test implementation of Linux within the Beijing Concord College of Sino-Canada, a 1500-student private school, followed by a full-scale rollout involving 1000 schools by the end of 2000.

If that wasn't enough of an eye-opener, the Graphon press release came at a time when several articles hinted that Linux might be on the fast track to becoming the "official" operating system for China.

Keller, an entrepreneur whose company has ridden the Linux wave, said he had little trouble pitching the free software operating system to his Chinese partners or their counterparts within the government. Alluding to the Yangcheng news report, Keller says, "It's interesting that it finally got out. It makes us feel that our sources our right."

Although Keller questioned the feasibility of an "official" operating system within a country as large as China, he did say the freedom inherent within the Linux software model -- a marketing concept most open-source advocates have steered away from in recent months -- has resonated strongly both within the Chinese marketplace and the Chinese government.

"As a country, you really have to be in control of your own destiny," Keller says. "They don't want a sole source situation, especially when that sole source is coming from another country. They want to localize the product. And of course, there are issues of security. If you don't have control of the source code, there are security issues to be concerned about. It's a very important decision for them. Linux allows them the freedom to address all those issues."

Other Silicon Valley observers echo Keller's assessment. George Koo, deputy director of Pacific Rim Services for Deloitte and Touche, says the irony of China's emerging tensions with Microsoft -- explicitly documented in a book by former Microsoft Chinese general manager Wu Shihong -- stems less from piracy and intellectual property concerns and more from age-old Chinese, and more recently Marxist, issues of centralized planning and control.

"There's nothing more centrally planned than Microsoft," Koo says, laughing. "That's a problem in China where the use of computers is growing by leaps and bounds. Certainly there are a lot of people over there who would love to get their hands on the source code just to speed up development."

Extend that situation around the globe, says George Weiss, hardware and operating systems analyst for the Gartner Group, and it's not too unreasonable to predict the emergence of a "Linux Bloc" among countries chafing under what Koo, and many others, refer to as the "hegemony of Microsoft."

"I'm wondering how long it will take other markets such as Latin America and Africa to catch on," Weiss says. "Linux opportunities are extremely important in countries that are underdeveloped and have a regime that has a high amount of central control and are especially cost-sensitive."

For China, and many developing nations, the primary Linux "opportunities" are cost, access and scalability. Originally built to run on 386-based Intel machines, the "install once and forget about it" nature of Linux and its open source cousin, the Apache Web server, make it a useful tool for building network infrastructures on the cheap.

Throw in open access to the code, and countries suddenly have the ability to clone and expand their infrastructures at zero cost. That's a major enticement for a country like China, which has Bush Administration-era PC hardware and a networking infrastructure that could outpace even the United States within the coming decade.

"They've been laying down hardware and fiber optics at a rate of one Baby Bell per year," says Koo. "And that doesn't even count the wireless infrastructure. Cell phone growth in China is well over 50 percent per year."

Still, the fact that Linux has entered so easily into the political realm carries ominous overtones, especially as the interests of U.S. corporations and the U.S. government get increasingly intertwined in the eyes of some foreign governments. While the economic side of the so-called "Linux story" may sell well in cash-strapped Third World nations and ex-Soviet bloc economies, the political side seems to be equally persuasive, even in regions with a strong technology infrastructure, such as Western Europe.

"The gist of the problem is that no one likes Microsoft," writes Bernard Lang, secretary of Association Francophone des Utilisateurs de Linux (AFUL). The AFUL is a French Linux organization that struck a deal in Oct. of 1998 with the French Government to speed Linux deployment within the French school system. "Bill Gates once said that computer-based resources are the nervous system of an organization. I believe him. What organization, whether it be a corporation, institution or country, wants to have its nervous system controlled from Redmond or anywhere else?"

So far, the lobbying efforts of AFUL and other French Linux user groups have yielded the strongest non-market endorsement for Linux yet. In October, Sen. Pierre Lafitte introduced a bill -- Proposition 495, later modified to become Proposition 117 -- that would establish an Agence du Logiciel Libre, or Free Software Agency, to speed the adoption of free software in both the private sector and the French government.

Lang, for one, sees Props. 495 and 117 more as attention-raising devices than as pathways to an official state OS. At the same time, the political support for Linux is growing just as fast in Europe as the financial support is growing in North America.

"I doubt any government will ever state that X or Y is the official OS," Lang says. "As you know, free software is about freedom. Freedom is not something that be imposed, it can only be chosen."

Then again, the fact that the "freedom" side of the Linux message seems to be selling better in countries with less historical affinity for the term than the liberty-loving United States offers an interesting prelude for the emerging decade. While many debate whether the Chinese definition of freedom fits the one so carefully delineated in the Linux General Public License, the notion of a few million additional programmers climbing onboard the Linux bandwagon could have some pretty far-reaching consequences.

Like former Chinese premier Chou En Lai appraising the French Revolution, Koo says it may still be a bit too early to pass judgment on the Linux movement.

"I can see down the road where China could even become a major supplier of Linux-based software just because you have so many more engineers and such a large domestic market in which to test new products," Koo says. "If things go right, it might really take off."

 
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