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The business of Linux in China

newsmaker As China faces a curb on Windows piracy, two execs discuss prospects for the open-source OS there.

At LinuxWorld in Boston last week, a Chinese government-sponsored organization enthusiastically handed out bags emblazoned with "Beijing: Asia's Linux Capital."

The contingent of Chinese companies at the conference was so strong that LinuxWorld held a special "Linux in Beijing" day, where different companies discussed how to boost the use of Linux on servers, desktops and mobile devices.

It's a sign of a changing landscape for open source in China. While the government has publicly voiced support for open source and has funded a number of initiatives, there have been few large-scale migrations to the software in the government sector. This is expected to change, however, now that the Chinese government has mandated the use of locally produced software in its departments. In addition, its agencies must replace unlicensed copies of Microsoft software, now that China has joined the World Trade Organization.

At the Boston show, ZDNet UK spoke to two Linux players in the region. Albert Chung, the chief marketing officer at Sun Wah Linux, one of the major desktop Linux vendors in China, shared his thoughts in an interview. He discussed why the software isn't ready for the consumer desktop market, told some customer success stories and outlined the challenges Sun Wah faced in creating its own Linux distribution. In a separate interview, Qinghua Hu, the general director of the government-sponsored Beijing Software Industry Productivity Center, spoke about the factors limiting the use of Linux on the desktop and predicted where the Linux desktop market will be in five years.

Albert Chung, chief marketing officer, Sun Wah Linux

Q: What's the history of Sun Wah Linux?
Chung: We are part of the Sun Wah group, which has businesses in different areas, including private banking, infrastructure and technology. We were not targeting to do a Linux distribution at the beginning, as maintaining a distribution is a lot of work.

In 2000, we were working on a project on how to handle the Chinese language on the Linux desktop. Using Chinese on Linux is different to using English on Linux, as there are three Chinese character encodings, compared to the one English character-encoding system. In mainland China they use Guobiao; internationally we use Unicode; and in Taiwan, we use Big5. If you have a Chinese document that is going around the world, it can easily be scrambled because of the incompatibility of different Chinese encodings.

In Hong Kong (where Sun Wah is based), because it is an international city, we have to handle all three character encodings. We launched a project to sort out this problem. But even after we had created a Unihan system (one that maps different character sets into a single set of unified character encodings), we still had to integrate this with different desktop Linux distributions. This involved a tremendous amount of work.

As our business grew and we expanded into China, we learned more about mainland China. (We) realized there is a desperate need for Linux in China--not only on servers, but also on desktops. The former Prime Minister of China, Zhu Rongji, said it was vital that we develop our own software industry, and the operating system is a fundamental part of that goal.

What Linux distribution did you base your new distribution on?
Chung: At the time, we investigated what distribution we could base it on. We compared Red Hat, which is based around the RPM packaging system, and Debian. Eventually we decided to use Debian.

Firstly, because most of our developers loved Debian. At the time, we had three official Debian developers. Secondly, we believe in open source and think that Debian offers more freedom and is more community based. If we are working on a Debian distribution, we can contribute more back to the community. There was also a business reason for doing this: With an RPM system, Red Hat offers the best technology and will always be the first with the technology, while with Debian it is easier to innovate.

How easy did Sun Wah find developing and maintaining an independent Linux desktop distribution? How many developers have you had working on it over the years?
Chung: We originally developed the system in Hong Kong, but our team was not very big--we initially had six developers. To maintain such a distribution, you need at least 10 times that amount, as a desktop distribution is very difficult to maintain. You have to work with devices, and there are new devices coming out all the time.

We now have 80 developers working on our Linux desktop.

What is the biggest desktop Linux migration that you have worked on?
Chung: In the Jiangsu province, we have rolled out desktop Linux on 150,000 PCs in schools. Beforehand, they were using (Microsoft) Windows in the school. I think this project is one of the biggest Linux desktop rollouts in China, but compared with the population of China (about 1.3 billion), it is small.

As the desktop was for use by students, we didn't encounter many problems with the migration. But the project took a huge amount of energy: For example, we had to work with different hardware vendors to get support for different drivers. The effort was worthwhile, though, as the features we worked in are now in our new 1.5 release (launched last week).

Have you worked on any desktop migrations within enterprises?
Chung: One of our customers is a national cinema chain in China, where we are rolling out Linux-based point-of-sale systems. The group has about 30 cinemas across China and about 20 point-of-sale systems in each cinema.

We have tuned the system so it not only handles the basic functions that a point of sale system has to perform, but still has computing power left to do other things. For example, the system displays advertisements to customers on a separate screen.

Do you think Linux is ready for the desktop market?
Chung: It depends on what kind of market. In the consumer market, there is still some work that has to be done. When you use your PC at home, you want to play multimedia and games, and this is still a weak part of Linux.

But if you are talking about enterprise use--particularly for systems that only perform limited functions, such as point-of-sale systems--that is where Linux works well. Businesses are starting to use Linux, especially now that China is entering the World Trade Organization, and there is a licensing problem.

Are you making a profit from selling Linux desktops?
Chung: We are making a profit, but not from selling Linux desktops. We also do software outsourcing and consulting work that makes more money.

For a pure Linux desktop business it is quite difficult to earn much money. You need a mix of products and services.

Qinghua Hu, general director, Beijing Software Industry Productivity Center

Q: What does the Beijing Software Industry Productivity Center do?
Hu: The goal of the center is to promote the software industry in Beijing. We are helping Linux companies in Beijing develop Linux and office products, and are helping companies develop Linux solutions for vertical industries, such as e-government, education, agriculture and SMEs.

Is the Beijing government using Linux?
Hu: Quite a few government organizations are using Linux on their servers, especially to run their e-mail servers, Web servers and databases. Our statistics show that over 80 percent of government servers within Beijing are using Linux. Some of the public administration agencies in Beijing are running Linux on the desktop as a pilot project.

Are the companies in Beijing also using Linux?
Hu: Right now, a lot of enterprises are using Linux, but not on a big scale. Most are using it for e-mail, Web servers or databases. In terms of big migrations, there have not really been any.

Why do you think that few companies and government agencies have moved to Linux on the desktop?
Hu: Because Microsoft monopolized the desktop. Migration is still very difficult, because customers have got used to Microsoft. Companies still feel that the Linux environment is quite different.

Also there is a problem with the device support and application availability. What happens quite often is that a vendor provides a Linux solution to a company, but the printer the company is using is not supported on Linux. Also many companies have already developed Web sites that are not following W3C standards or are tailored to (Microsoft's) Internet Explorer. If companies use Firefox, they cannot read these Web sites properly.

The availability of developers is also a problem. There is a shortage of developers who understand Linux. The center is trying to address all these problems.

Why is there a shortage of Linux developers? What is being done about this shortage?
Hu: Unfortunately, the curricula in many Chinese universities teach developers about Windows only. From last year, the Ministry of Education has laid down a policy for universities to include Linux in their curricula.

Universities are working on solving this problem, but there is a shortage of teachers and materials, so they are now developing materials and training teachers. I believe Linux training in the main universities will be available by the end of 2006.

The Chinese government has dictated that government agencies must buy only China-produced software, so why are organizations still using Microsoft?
Hu: In general, the Chinese government supports Linux and open-source solutions. We're a developing country with a huge population, and the government thinks that open source is a good way to lead the population into IT literacy.

There is a government purchasing policy across China that says if local software is available, it should be top priority But there are so many people using Microsoft Windows that it is not feasible to say, "Tomorrow, everyone must use Linux." It would result in chaos. The migration must be step by step. During this process, I believe that Microsoft may also develop a counterpolicy--it may open up some of its products.

What is your perception of Microsoft? Do you want people to stop using Microsoft software?
Hu: I am not necessarily against Microsoft. It also provides a product, which has its own benefits, such as ease of use. Many people are still using Microsoft products, and it's their choice whether to use it. The only role of the government in this is to ensure they respect intellectual property.

The purchase of software within the government is different. If they have a choice of local and homemade software, it should be top priority to use (the latter).

How many Linux distributions are there in China? How important are standards within the Linux platform?
Hu: There are around 10 Linux distributions. Standards are very important. You need to have a development standard, a user-interface standard and a documentation standard. A standard must be international, but take into account local needs. Linux Standard Base (an international standard that has been adopted by vendors across the world) is a very important standard.

What are your predictions for the next five years? Do you think Linux on the desktop will take off?
Hu: In the coming five years, the Linux desktop market in China will grow substantially. To make this growth healthier, we will have to work with international organizations like the Open Source Development Labs, and the Chinese development community must work in a more extensive manner with the international community, such as the GNOME and KDE projects. The development of the Linux desktop will also grow to be more systematic--distributions will become more standardized.