21 August 2019
The as yet unnamed Chinese operating system would first appear on desktop devices and later extend to smartphones and other mobile devices. Photo: internet
The as yet unnamed Chinese operating system would first appear on desktop devices and later extend to smartphones and other mobile devices. Photo: internet

China builds homegrown OS to take on Microsoft, Apple and Google

Citing US surveillance concerns, China is developing its own operating system for desktop computers and mobile devices, with eyes on eliminating all reliance on American software companies.

The homegrown software would compete directly with offerings from Microsoft, Google and Apple, and would be available to China’s consumers and government personnel alike as soon as October, said state-controlled Xinhua news agency on Sunday.

Xinhua positioned the announcement as “good news”, though Ni Guangnan, head of an OS development alliance established in March, said there are still problems in the program, including a lack of research funds and too many developers pulling in different directions.

“We hope to launch a Chinese-made desktop operating system by October,” Ni told a software trade paper run by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, according to a translation by Reuters.

According to the People’s Post and Telecommunications News, Ni cited the end of Windows XP support and the ban on Windows 8 on government computers as giving domestic OS developers an opening.

When Microsoft ended support for Windows XP in April, it left nearly three-quarters of Chinese computers at risk of bugs and malware, said CNN.

Ni, incidentally, is no slouch. He co-founded Chinese computer maker Lenovo in 1984, served as its first chief technology officer, and is deputy chairman of the China Software Association and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He is widely considered as the driving force of China’s domestic IT industry.

The as yet unnamed Chinese operating system, said to be based on Linux, would first appear on desktop devices and later extend to smartphones and other mobile devices, Xinhua said.

Ni said he hoped domestically built software would be able to replace desktop operating systems within one to two years and mobile operating systems in three to five years.

China’s attempts to create a national operating system have not always gone smoothly, said PC Magazine. Back in 2000, Red Flag Linux — partly funded by the government — was the required replacement for all government systems previously running Windows 2000. While popular at the time, it did not have any longevity.

Likewise, a homegrown OS called Kylin developed by a top military engineering university bombed in 2001.

More recently, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shanghai-based Liantong Network Communications Technology, launched the China Operating System, designed for use in smartphones, tablets, television set top boxes and personal computers. It’s available since January but I can’t find any OEM or mobile carrier that supports it.

China has long been at odds with foreign technology firms, particularly Microsoft and Google — but also at times with Apple — over their impact and influence in the country, said Computerworld.

Last month, antitrust regulators raided four Microsoft offices located in China, seizing computers, emails and financial information for an “ongoing” investigation.

Like Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo, Microsoft has also been under scrutiny for allegations it helps the US spy and conduct cyber-attacks in China, with state media characterizing the companies as “pawns” of the National Security Agency, a US intelligence service.

Mutual suspicions between China and the United States over hacking have escalated over the past year after revelations by Edward Snowden that US intelligence planted “backdoor” surveillance tools on US-made hardware, said Reuters. The US Justice Department, meanwhile, indicted five Chinese military officers in May on counts of extensive industrial espionage.

Backdoors aside, it will be interesting to see if Chinese developers can build an OS that its users will be happy with. That happiness, of course, will be measured by its ability to smoothly run everything from the latest software to ancient applications, as well as music players, video players and crazy, browser-based games.

The best OS, after all, is an OS you don’t have to think about.

The writer is a China commentator. He writes on China for Forbes.

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