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China launches its first open-source desktop operating system as it moves to cut use of US tech

BEIJING – China is ramping up efforts to wean itself off foreign technology by launching its first open-source desktop operating system (OS) last week, but it faces an uphill task getting its citizens to use it widely.

The OS, called OpenKylin and developed by state-owned China Electronics Corp – formed in 1989 to build home-grown semiconductors, software and telecommunications products – is aimed at replacing foreign-owned software that currently dominates the market. It did not set a timeline for achieving this.

The project is Beijing’s latest move to build greater self-sufficiency amid tech sanctions – such as those on Huawei and ZTE – over “national security” concerns by the United States.

The Chinese authorities had in 2019 ordered all government offices and public institutions to remove foreign computer equipment and software in three years.

“A lot of the major software, especially Windows, is controlled by US companies,” said Associate Professor of Computer Science Ben Leong from the National University of Singapore. “There is nothing stopping the US from passing some law to force US companies to stop support for China and Chinese companies.”

China is still a long way from dislodging the incumbents, such as Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s MacOS.

According to Statcounter, which analyses Web traffic, Windows accounts for around 85 per cent of desktop operating systems in China as at June 2022. MacOS has expanded its market share in recent years to about 8 per cent.

Beyond existing sanctions, the US has reportedly been mulling over further legislation to prohibit American investment in Chinese companies working on advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Officials at the launch of the Linux-based OpenKylin called for support from related industries to propel China forward as a technological power. Software that is open-source is meant to be publicly available for other users to help develop, encouraging greater use and innovation.

OpenKylin has a user interface that looks similar to Windows’, is available in Chinese and English, and has pre-installed apps such as the Firefox Web browser and a Chinese-developed office suite that works with Microsoft Word and Excel documents.

But the challenge is getting people to adopt OpenKylin, with the average computer user likely to be more concerned about whether the programs and apps he uses can work, than the OS itself.

One tech enthusiast who posted his experience on Chinese social media app Xiaohongshu demonstrated the OS’ touchscreen functions and its ability to run photo-editing software, but noted that there are bugs to be fixed.

China will need to create an ecosystem of software developers who can further make the software more alluring to users for this home-grown OS to gain traction, said Prof Leong.

“The holy grail for China would be for OpenKylin to have all the software that the Chinese people need so that they will not need to turn to any products built by US or Western companies.”

The US banned Huawei from doing business in America in 2019 over spying and intellectual property rights concerns, forcingthe Chinese telco giant to develop its own OS called HarmonyOS, which is now used on its smartphones.

The OS, which shares similarities with Android, also runs on its other products such as smartwatches and tablets.

Mr Manoj Harjani, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,said China could also be pushing for its own home-grown OS as a demonstrationof power or status, although developing an OS is not in the same league as designing chips or quantum computers.

Launching such an indigenous software could be a way to exercise power over society, he added. “Controlling one more piece of the technological stack that undergirds daily life makes sense given the level of control already exercised in China by the state over the Internet.”

The Chinese media has hailed the development as yet another step to reduce reliance on Western technologies. The government had in 2021 unveiled a plan to build “two or three open-source communities with international influence” by 2025, with the aim of boosting its software industry.

Such communities have grown rapidly, with Chinese users now the second-biggest contributors on popular code-sharing platform GitHub after the US.

Mr Harjani, who specialises in regulation and governance of technology, believes mass adoption will take off only when people buy computers with OpenKylin pre-installed as the default, which could take a while.

More people now skip owning desktops as smartphones cover most of their computing needs, he said. “Even if OpenKylin is a superior alternative to other operating systems, it is difficult to see most users putting in effort to install a new OS.”

Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/

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