Linux Revolution: Asian Countries Push Open Source

Asia is emerging as a key battleground for the open-source movement. The Japan-China-Korea (JCK) partnership, announced last month in Osaka, is the latest in a string of initiatives to promote Linux. Two weeks earlier, Singapore hosted the second annual Asia Open Source Symposium, where 20 Asian countries discussed closer collaboration in standardization, localization and interoperability of Linux software.

Announcements of major Linux initiatives have become a daily occurrence in Asia this year. Governments in the region see open-source software as a fast track to the development of a domestic software industry, one that is not beholden to foreign licenses.

The pacesetter seems to be China, which looks set to become the Middle Kingdom of the Linux revolution. China embraced Linux in 1998 and now has a thriving Linux industry. Nearly all major Western IT players — among them HP, Intel, Sun, Oracle and IBM — have teamed up with Chinese partners to get a slice of the growing Linux pie.

Giving Linux Momentum

Increasing collaboration between Asian countries is giving Linux added momentum. The JCK partnership will develop open-source business models, standardize software and train software engineers. This partnership already has moved toward a division of labor: China will develop PC operating systems, Japan will focus on software development and security, and Korea will develop software for PDAs. The partners are setting up a database to coordinate their efforts and avoid duplication.

Analysts are usually skeptical about partnership announcements such as these, but the JCK initiative will be guided by coordinating bodies with considerable clout: the Japanese IT Services Industry Association (JISA), the Chinese Software Industry Association (CSIA) and the Federation of Korean Information Industries (KFII). The three associations have more than 1,000 corporations on their membership rosters, including nearly all of the technological heavyweights in the Japanese and Korean industry.

Tara Tranguch, general manager of Beijing-based research consultancy MFC Insight, notes that China, Korea and Japan are increasingly forming pacts to work together on different technology ventures, not only in open source, but also in 3G and 4G cellular technology and other IT-related fields.

“These pacts are being formed at high government levels, and meetings are being attended by top executives,” Tranguch told LinuxInsider. “Whether or not these agreements to work together are more than press releases remains to be seen. But it is significant that all three countries are so willing — and active — to show a combined front on several different initiatives.”

Growing Resistance to Foreign Licenses

Asia’s Linux fever is fueled by a growing resistance to licensed software and to Microsoft in particular. A Japanese spokesperson for the JCK initiative stressed that the project is not positioned directly against Microsoft, but he did point out that the three countries find it unacceptable to be dependent on software over which they have no control — neither over the source code nor the price. China has been more blunt about its intentions. “The monopoly of foreign office software in the Chinese market will be broken,” wrote the People’s Daily, referring to development of Yangfan, a Linux alternative to Windows.

Concerns about spyware also play a role in Asia’s embrace of Linux. China’s military was an early Linux adopter, fearful that security leaks would put vital military information at risk. Microsoft has since launched a diplomatic offensive. But even though the company has been active in China for 10 years, it has yet to make a profit there. Earlier this year, the China Information Technology Security Certification Center signed an agreement with Microsoft to participate in the company’s Government Security Program.

Last month’s agreement between Sun Microsystems and China for the supply of up to 200 million Linux-based Java Desktop Systems leaves little doubt about China’s intentions: Its desktop market will not be dominated by a single company or platform. The Sun deal was a serious setback for Microsoft.

The open-source alliance between Japan, China and Korea also will boost the Linux server market in the region. Microsoft Windows and Unix have dominant positions in the advanced markets of Japan and Korea. But China is relatively underdeveloped and has few legacy systems, making it fertile ground for Linux.

China To Emerge as Software Exporter

Turbolinux, Japan’s leading producer of Linux server software, was among the first to identify China as a pivotal market. According to a study by research firm IDC, Turbolinux had a 65 percent share of China’s Linux server market in 2002. The company sold 14,000 systems last year, which included a large contract with energy giant China Petrochemicals. The Japanese company, which supplies both server and client software, claimed 52 percent of China’s total Linux market last year.

Western IT giants, eager to get a foothold in China, are increasingly teaming up with Chinese Linux vendors. China’s software market is growing 20 to 25 percent annually and will have a value of about $30 billion in 2005. Oracle’s Japanese unit, called Miracle Linux, and China’s Red Flag are working on Linux versions of Oracle’s database software. Red Flag also has teamed with HP to develop Linux products for the domestic and international markets. The two companies are porting HP’s Integrity and Proliant servers to Red Flag’s version of Linux.

The emergence of China as a software exporter seems to be simply a matter of time — and it might even get a little help from Microsoft. Last month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and the China National Computer Software & Service Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding to develop technology solutions and local software expertise that will “strengthen China’s software economy — both domestically and for exports.”

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