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Open Source's Ambassadors to China

Open Source's Ambassadors to China

Bringing the Chinese technology community around to the philosophy that software licenses should be honored will take time, said Cedric Thomas, CEO of OW2. "Building an awareness for open source in China is the initial goal. Piracy is a way to obtain software. That's the way the Chinese see it. So we are trying to show them a way to use free software in business as a legal activity."

By Jack M. Germain
12/26/12 5:00 AM PT

This story was originally published on Oct. 23, 2012, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

The tide of software piracy in China may be ebbing. With the clear support of the Chinese government, several software organizations and computer firms based in Europe and the U.S. are conducting events focusing on growing open source in China.

The push toward China's active participation in the open source community signals a maturing of the country's computing infrastructure. That, in turn, may generate a more trusting partnership with China's IT resources and roots taking hold for future growth of global software exchanges with China.

The Chinese computing industries for years thrived on pirating commercial software. Now the Chinese government is pushing its homegrown computing infrastructure to leverage open source principals as a portal to joining the global software market.

That process is already under way in some embedded electronics companies and in Chinese universities. For consumers and many supply-chain endpoints in the computing industry, however, open source players are yet to be recruited and encouraged to abide by GPL licensing dictates and code sharing rather than program stealing.

A series of OpenStack meetings by core contribution engineers from Intel, Sina, IBM, Gamewave and others took place in mid-September. The event, OpenStack China, focused on the open ecosystem of OpenStack and the reasons for its success.

Another example of China's growing interest in open source software was evident the week of Oct. 15. The China Open Source Week 2012 attempted to ratchet ambition for open source by extending the potential reach of FOSS beyond the scope of universities and build awareness for it as a business model for developing, building and legally distributing software.

"In our discussions with the players in China, I definitely get the sense that there is a high degree of consciousness around moving in this direction, managing open source and leveraging open source, Tim Yeaton, CEO of Black Duck Software, told LinuxInsider.

The Stakes

China had a population of 1.3 billion as of 2011, according to the World Bank. That represents a huge market potential for legitimate software sharing and development.

The high degree of consciousness Yeaton senses in the Chinese attitude toward open source could greatly contribute to breaking the current cycle of software-by-theft. The gap from software thievery to free and cooperative code sharing is a huge gap for the Chinese to bridge.

"Building an awareness for open source in China is the initial goal. Piracy is a way to obtain software. That's the way the Chinese see it. So we are trying to show them a way to use free software in business as a legal activity," Cedric Thomas, CEO of OW2, told LinuxInsider. OW2 is a global open source community based in France that's dedicated to open source middleware and generic applications.

Events such as China Open Source Week are a way to tell the Chinese that the world knows they see piracy as a way to get software for free, and also a way to show them how they can get free software legally, Thomas explained.

Uneasy Embrace

Not everyone in the open source market is convinced that Chinese software makers will fully embrace the rules. The litmus test could well be how completely the Chinese computing industry embraces the GPL license.

"I don't see it as a troublesome issue. The more people involved with open source, the better it is for all of us. As long as they [the Chinese] honor the GPL licenses, they can do whatever else they want," Paul Orwig, president of Open Source Matters, told LinuxInsider. Open Source Matters is a not-for-profit organization created to serve the financial and legal interests of the Joomla project.

The general sense that Orwig gets from the people in China with whom he interacts is that they just want good software and are less concerned about what type it is. His hunch is that the Chinese will be mostly one-way users with open source.

"They will consume it legally but not be very active in returning advancements to the community," he explained.

Already There

Getting the Chinese computing industry to adopt legitimate use of open source software should not be an uphill battle, Thomas believes. Linux is already more widespread in China than elsewhere. So getting them to migrate from Windows is not the starting step.

China has several open source organizations already. Two top-down government-driven open source organizations are COPU and COSOFT. These organizations are already very well connected with the Linux Foundation and Apache Foundation. When Chinese software organizations hold events, they invite both, Thomas noted.

"They are like the first generation foray into open source. Government driven and controlled, these organizations are very much connected to North American industries and are very much like a bridge head with them," Thomas said.

Well Established

Another very powerful open source organization is ICSAS, the Institute of Software of the Chinese Academy of Science. One of the spin-offs from this university community is Red Flag Linux.

That distro has been around for more than ten years, and it contributed to the growth of Linux in China, according to Thomas.

"The use of open source in China is even broader than what is filtering back to us. I think there are as many as 15 million IT experts in that country. Open source has a gigantic user base," added Yeaton.

Students and university staff constitute about 15 or 20 percent of the Linux OS user base. However, businesses and consumers in China are heavy users of commercial client products and Microsoft platforms, and they rarely bother complying with licenses, he said.

Many Factors

One force behind open source in China is the embedded electronics industry. In that space, two factors are at work, Yeaton explained. One is the presence of large global competitors. Those users are very in tune with the strategic advantages they can gain by leveraging open source.

The other factor is the companies in the middle of the supply chain rather than at the endpoints. These firms do business with OEMs in Japan and the U.S., and as such, they have been pushed to innovate much more quickly than those developing software for just their own users within the country.

Black Duck Software got involved with the these mid-level software companies after the Chinese government released its latest five-year plan. That is pushing the software industry in China to prepare for participating in global markets, Yeaton said.

"It was interesting to see the extent to which they thought through what kind of evolutions would be required if Chinese software makers were ever going to be accepted in global markets," he added.

For instance, they recognized their need to be innovative and compelling with their software solutions beyond the levels that competitors show globally. They also know that most IT and Internet solutions rely on open source.

A second thing is the realization that their world image is one of allowing software piracy. So the indigenous software industry in China is trying to figure out how to expand its market potential globally, and part of that is complying with licenses.

Change of Attitude

Until now the Chinese were used to pirating software. Now they are waking up and realizing that really good open source software is available without their having to hack through encryptions and license fees, according to Orwig.

"We're happy for them to take it and use it. It remains to be seen if Chinese companies will comply with licensing and if any other communities will have to go to court to enforce the license," he said.

It becomes a win-win for the global open source market, according to Yeaton. If the Chinese are successful in growing mature business models for FOSS acceptance, they will participate more and more in open source projects and contribute back to them.

Small Steps

"China is not yet a mature market environment for marketing open source versus commercial software as an alternative to legitimate sales over piracy. In China the market is not the same as the concept applies elsewhere," said Thomas.

The Chinese are learning very fast. They are willing to observe, and adapt and adopt best practices from mature markets, he noted. That is the connection OW2 is trying to bring to the Chinese.

As the market develops, North American vendors will pursue the contacts they have developed and expand them. A new bread and a new category of open source players are developing in China that are not connected to companies and governments. This will open up the bottom of the communities, Thomas explained.

Thomas sees the process bearing fruit in as little as five years' time. It will take at least that long to grow vendors, mature users who will share their experiences and develop whole communities that will respect the rules and practices of open source.

"It is a generational thing. But in China the generational progress is accelerated. The university teachers I deal with there are in their 50's. The generation cycle lasts much shorter in China than it does elsewhere," he said.

Given the scale of what the Chinese have to accomplish, it should take a long time, Yeaton said, but he does not discount the ability of the Chinese to move faster than anticipated.

"It will be a multi-year process. But in the embedded space they are already well down this path. I think the software industry is going to take the longest to evolve because they have to build and then market software globally," he said. "That is probably a 10-year process."


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


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