Chinese developers should take global open-source role

Chinese developers of open-source software should play a more prominent role in the development of Linux and other open-source software, senior industry executives said at a conference in Beijing on Wednesday.

China has a small but rapidly growing appetite for open-source software. Total revenue from Linux sales in China grew 20 per cent between 2003 and 2004, from US$7.8 million to $9.3 million, according to market analyst IDC.

Looking ahead, it expects that figure to continue growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24 per cent through 2009, when revenue will top $27 million.

By comparison, IDC expects China’s total spending on software and services to top $18 billion by 2009. The amount expected to be spent on Linux may look like peanuts by comparison, but industry executives said Chinese developers are well positioned to take a leading role in the open-source software movement.

“Interesting things are happening here,” said Jack Messman, chairman and chief executive officer of Novell Inc., referring to the rapid rise of Linux in China during a speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Beijing.

In particular, Messman praised the Chinese government’s support for Linux and open-source software in general, saying the policy has laid a strong foundation for the future development of China’s domestic software industry. “Linux and open source provide a golden opportunity to develop this country into a global software powerhouse,” he said.

The Chinese government and corporate users also stand to benefit from increased freedom to select the vendors and technologies they want to use, Messman said. “Open source will solve the software monopoly problems that have annoyed the government for a long time,” he said, alluding to rival Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system.

That sentiment was echoed by Steve McWhirter, vice president of Asia-Pacific at Red Hat Inc. “Governments are simply unhappy with what they are getting from packaged software,” he said.

Chinese software companies and developers have an opportunity to lead some global open-source efforts but they are not connected closely enough to the international open-source community for this to happen right now, Messman said. In addition, Chinese efforts to develop Linux desktop operating systems are not taking advantage of the most advanced technologies that are available, he said.

“If China is going to grow its adoption of Linux and open source, the local developer community must be able to leverage the knowledge in the international community,” McWhirter said, noting that Red Hat plans to set up centres to help the company work more closely with Chinese Linux developers.

Novell’s Messman promised his company will help to address these issues by serving as a “bridge” between China and international open-source efforts. To that end, Messman said Novell will open a Linux R&D (research and development) centre in Beijing before the end of this year. The centre will work closely with Chinese software companies to develop open-source technologies for desktop Linux, software internationalization, and high-performance computing, he said.

“These three technologies have enormous market potential,” Messman said, calling on interested Chinese companies to partner with Novell. Some have already answered that call, including telecommunications equipment vendor Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Linux developer China Standard Software Company Ltd., and Messman expects to announce more Chinese partners in the months ahead.

Chinese companies and developers can also help to shape the open-source movement in non-technical ways, said Martin Fink, the vice president and general manager of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s NonStop Enterprise Division, Open Source and Linux Organization.

Fink used his keynote speech at LinuxWorld in Beijing to reiterate his call, made last week at LinuxWorld in San Francisco, for IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. to abandon their own open-source licenses in favor of the GNU GPL (General Public License).

“We need to stop the proliferation of open-source licenses,” Fink said, warning that the introduction of different licenses reduces the benefits of open-source software by limiting the ability of developers to share code.

The GPL license also needs to be updated to address advances in technology, such as object-oriented programming, Fink said. China can play an important role in the development of version 3.0 of the GPL license, perhaps by adopting it as a standard for all locally developed open-source software, he said. That license is expected to be released in 2007.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for China to play a leading role here,” Fink said.

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