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.
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.
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