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Open-source adoption faces extra obstacles in China

Owen Fletcher | July 16, 2009
Rampant software piracy and a lack of commercial backers hamper the growth of open source in China

BEIJING, 15 JULY 2009 - The uphill battle that open-source programs face to steal ground from proprietary software comes with added pitfalls in China, where problems like software piracy take away strengths that open source has elsewhere.

The Chinese government backs multiple domestic open-source projects, but their software is not widely used. Low awareness, a lack of big open-source projects and difficulty finding expertise in certain programming languages all hamper the development of open source in China, observers and advocates say.

China also has had few examples of large commercial organizations switching to Linux or other open-source software, said Matthew Cheung, a Gartner analyst.

"It is still limited to government agencies and the education sector," Cheung said. "People are just hearing a lot, but can't see the real reference cases in China."

China wants to cultivate its own industry giants in software, including in open source. Beijing supports the sector by using open-source software in many of its own offices and channeling research funds to domestic companies like Red Flag Software, the top local Linux vendor.

Red Flag Software closes many government deals. China's postal service and the Postal Savings Bank of China run tens of thousands of servers with Red Flag Linux, Jia Dong, CEO of Red Flag Software, the operating system's distributor, said in an interview. The huge state-run news agency, Xinhua, is among the other users of the company's Linux distribution.

China's Linux market is growing as the operating system finds its way onto netbooks and more servers. IDC forecasts a 22.8 percent compound annual growth rate for revenue in the market over the next five years.

But Linux and other open-source software programs face even more roadblocks to their adoption in China than they do in developed economies, where problems like the mere logistics of switching over an entire company's systems from proprietary software can make such projects unrealistic.

The biggest reason Chinese companies do not choose open-source programs may be rampant software piracy. Pirated copies of Windows and Microsoft Word, openly sold at Chinese electronics markets, are used on countless PCs in both offices and homes.

China's software piracy rate has declined for several years but was still 80 percent in 2008, according to a study by IDC and the Business Software Alliance.

The availability of Windows copies for virtually free means companies cannot save money by switching to Linux as they would in the U.S. or Europe, said Frederic Muller, an organizer of the Beijing Linux User Group.

That eliminates a major incentive companies would otherwise have to switch to open source, said Muller.

"In China even the closed software is free," he said.

Business is also more difficult for open-source companies without government backing to guarantee big deals.

 

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