Open Sources 2.0/Open Source: Competition and Evolution/When China Dances with OSS

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Open Sources 2.0

Boon-Lock Yeo, Louisa Liu, and Sunil Saxena

One of the key challenges for China's Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry is to ensure that China has the right software solutions to support usage models and value requirements. The advent of open source software (OSS), along with its business model with respect to intellectual property and value proposition, brings this business force to the fast-growing software industry in China. That, in turn, will provide an opportunity for the OSS community to promote and popularize this model throughout the People's Republic of China (PRC). This chapter analyzes how OSS has developed in China and where it is heading.


What OSS Was and Is in China

With the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growing at an average rate of 9.8% year over year (YoY) from 1979 to 1997,[1] China has been pegged as a fast-growing economy. The high-tech industry had become the number-one pillar industry as of 2002,[2] and is expected to contribute 7% to the country's overall growth in 2005.[3] All of this is part of China's tenth Five-Year Plan, with the vision that "information drives industrialization" and ICT will continue to be a national focus onward.

There are many growth opportunities within China's ICT, particularly in software and services, hardware, and telecommunications. Currently China is experiencing significant growth and success in hardware and telecommunications, notably with companies like Lenovo[4] and Huawei Technologies,[5] which are recognized as global industry players. The software industry, however, is slower to produce such success stories.

There are three key objectives to consider when examining the future of China's software industry:

Grow the local independent software vendors (ISVs) who can drive more PRC market success
China currently has many small and medium-sized software companies, 90% of which employ fewer than 200 people. Today the revenue generated by the Chinese software companies competing in the global market is relatively small, with the most successful local vendors generating approximately $70 million in revenue, only 1% of that of their leading global software counterparts.
Grow infrastructure software to take advantage of the specific needs of the PRC market
There is a perceived opportunity to develop specific infrastructure software for the Chinese market. Currently 85% of the local ISVs fall into the application software segment. China's software industry is largely reliant on multinational vendors, which are the predominant suppliers of infrastructure software such as operating systems.
Continue education on the importance of intellectual property (IP) rights to grow a healthy software industry
It will be important to continue to educate Chinese enterprises that software and services are not complementary to purchased hardware. Piracy is perceived by many organizations as the norm, particularly for popular software and tools. Sharing of such IP not only negatively impacts the vendor's bottom line, but also hurts the local software industry, making it difficult for vendors to build capital with which to compete and innovate. Today more Chinese companies have begun to develop original content, which means they will think more about adequate safeguards for their IP. This is borne out by the increasing number of patents and trademarks that are being filed in the PRC.

Other factors worth considering to improve and grow the domestic software industry include:

Minimize piracy by encouraging fair-priced software and services
China's World Trade Organization (WTO) entry means it will need to confront and contain software piracy. The government has adopted a multipronged approach targeting piracy to combat the issue of copyright infringement over time.
Enhance national security and decrease viruses and hacker attacks when running software
As China works to develop infrastructure software, it will continue to rely on what is available. To protect national security, China recognizes that it has to complement the core parts in the value chain of the software industry, as it sees the direct relationship between the software and hardware industries.
Grow a strong software industry in pursuit of IT industry growth
As software is where the profitability goes in the ICT industry, China needs to position itself to supply the innovation, new software, support, and usage models which the growing Chinese economy will need. By considering local needs of the various market sectors and using standards that would allow for international usage, Chinese software companies can build a home base of customers to support IT industry growth.

At this time, OSS has entered onto the PRC SW sage.

What OSS Means in China

Picture a generic software stack (Figure 13-1), with levels for the different types of software, starting from the firmware/basic input/output system (BIOS), all the way to the applications. OSS traditionally has focused on the operating system (OS) part and above; Linux has played a key role in the OS layer.

Figure 13-1. A generic software stack

A generic software stack

The introduction of OSS in China can be attributed to a group of technical enthusiasts in the early 1990s. It is said that copies of Linux were brought back by Chinese visiting overseas from the University of Helsinki, UC Berkeley, and MIT, and quickly spread throughout universities and research institutions such as Tsinghua University and the University of Science and Technology of China.[6] At that time, computer science students and professors focused on becoming familiar with the system and localization.

In 1997, OSS was officially recognized by the government with the development of "Free Software Research and Application Development," a sub-branch of the China Software Industry Association, along with a wide range of OSS communities, such as a free software database——and some other bulletin board systems (BBSs), newsgroups, and Linux User Groups (LUGs).

In 1999, the first Chinese Linux company—Xteam—was founded and delivered to the industry the first commercial operation of Linux/OSS in China. Consequently a nascent market started on this initial engagement, which drew the attention of competition and keen interest from entrepreneurs.[7] Companies such as Red Flag, China Software Network Technology Co., Ltd., and BluePoint, as well as multinational ones such as TurboLinux have since begun activities in China.

Status of OSS in China

Since 1999, China has placed a stronger focus on OSS. There are many different components in OSS, from infrastructure software like Apache (web server), MySQL (database), and JBoss (application server), to tool and application software. In China, many of the efforts and activities have focused on Linux.

As seen in the market, the server side of Linux is relatively established in enterprise infrastructure, with a healthy growth rate. Increasingly Linux is being deployed for application servers and backend databases. This has been mainly seen in the financial services industry (FSI) and telecommunications. Vendors such as TurboLinux and Red Flag have taken an active part in these segments to grow their corporate revenues.

Since the Linux OS is the most well-used OSS in organizations, enterprises, and government bodies, a snapshot of China's Linux market is an appropriate way to study the market potential. Table 13-1 shows the key players in the market in China.

Table 13-1. Linux distributors in China

Type Company Background/description Commonality
Local Red Flag Market leader in Linux client operating environment (COE) and second in server operating environment (SOE).[8]Co-founded by Software Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and NewMargin Venture Capital in 2000.Got investment from CCID Capital incorporated under the Ministry of Information Industry in 2001.Offers a complete portfolio of Linux products for desktop, server, and embedded systems. Strong government background.Fewer than 200 staff.Revenue mainly from government IT purchasing.
China Standard Software Co., Ltd. (CS2C) Ranks as third Linux distributor in COE and SOE markets, respectively.[9]Spun off from China National Software and Service Co., Ltd. (CS&S) in 2003.Focus on desktop, server, and office products.
Co-Create Joint entity formed by tens of local IT companies in 2001.Received investment from CapInfo in 2003.Targets Linux desktop and office suite.
Xteam First Linux distributor in China.Listed in Hong Kong Stock Exchange two years after the company was established.Transitioned to Linux server from its initial focus on Linux desktop.Focused on solutions for government and education after 2004 investment by Beijing Enterprises Holdings Ltd., which had a strong government background. Government background.
BluePoint Transitioned from a pioneer Linux distributor to an embedded firewall provider. No government background.
Foreign TurboLinux China (TLC) Existed as an American company, then acquired by a Japanese company.In 2004, local company Hinge Software became the No. 1 shareholder of TLC,[10] which made it a local entity.Strong in server side, especially in the telecommunications industry. Presence in China.
Novell SuSE After the acquisition of SuSE Linux, Novell, with over a decade of operations experience in China, started its new Linux business locally.Focus on training with local institutions.[11]
Red Hat Leading distributor globally.Commenced operation in China in November 2004.Plans to invest $1 billion for development in China.[12]
MandrakeSoft Ranks as third distributor in the world.[13] Plans to enter China.
[8]Nielse Jiang, "China Linux 2005-2009 Forecast and Analysis." IDC, Feb. 2005.[9]Nielse Jiang, "China Linux 2005-2009 Forecast and Analysis." IDC, Feb. 2005.[10][11][12][13]

In China, Linux distributors are broken into two camps: local and foreign.

In the local camp, there are five major distributors. The first three distributors, composed of the tier-one groups, make up more than 60% of the market share among local players. Although they have different characteristics and strengths, all of them possess certain commonalities—i.e., they have government backing, fewer than 200 employees, and revenue coming mainly from government IT purchasing.

As to the rest, the main difference is that they do not have government backing. That may change the fate of these companies. Some have transitioned to new business, such as BluePoint. Some have turned to getting government support, thanks to capital infusions, as seen in Xteam. Still, there are some distributors who continue to fight for a ticket into the tier-one group.

Although there are many indigenous distributors in China, the market potential has attracted the attention of foreign distributors also. This group of foreign distributors in China includes almost all the leading global distributors: TurboLinux, Novell/SuSE, and Red Hat. Some other distributors, such as MandrakeSoft, are also expressing interest in making inroads into China.

OSS Business Models in China

Many people may wonder how companies make money based on open source products. There are different approaches, but one that has a proven track record is related to the service model—i.e., making money mainly in services while selling products for a reasonable price premium.

Several companies have positioned themselves toward the services business model. They may compete with each other by providing additional value-add or niche products. Open source distributors like Red Hat, SuSE, and Red Flag are clear leaders of open source Linux and have positioned themselves as services companies. These companies tend to get service-level agreements for support for the Linux distributions they supply to their customers. They have made their distribution as rich as possible, validate them on many platforms themselves, and get the help of many platforms through their OEM partners.

The other successful business model is proprietary applications above the open source products that run on top of open source distributions and link only dynamically with user-level libraries. Oracle server products, and Office products from Kingsoft, are clear examples of products that deliver value above the open source stack.

Other examples include set-top boxes like TiVo,[14] and Linux-based cell phones. These products use Linux as an embedded operating system and provide dedicated proprietary services above the stack. These vendors can easily charge for their individual products, as they provide very visible value to end users. These companies clearly use the Linux operating system as the base for their solution stack, leveraging open source to bring cheaper systems into the marketplace.

In China, both business models are common and advantageous. Red Flag, known as a services company, distinguishes itself from its competitors by focusing on providing value-add via localization for the PRC market. Other additional value that it provides is management and security solutions not available from other local vendors.

Red Hat, on the other hand, distinguishes itself with a large volume of ISV support and validated stacks from thousands of ISVs. This value-add may fetch additional customers, however the core of its business remains as a services company. Another key factor in favor of Chinese companies is the strong manufacturing base of consumer electronics and cell phones—leading to opportunities for value-added software on top of the OSS infrastructure.

SWOT Analysis of OSS in China

We have come up with the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) and have done comparisons among China and other geographies with regard to OSS adoption. In Table 13-2, we summarized the SWOT analysis of OSS, to further separate factors common with other geographies from those unique to China. In the sections that follow, we examine strengths and opportunities for OSS in China.

Table 13-2. SWOT analysis of OSS

Category Shared with other geographies Unique to China
Strengths Free source code.Strong multinational company (MNC) support. Strong government support.
Weakness Shortage of applications. Lack of localized applications.Lack of Linux developer talent.Lack of understanding and participation in Commons.Young software industry.Entrepreneurship skill sets are at an early stage.Shortage of successful OSS businesses.
Opportunities Opportunities to develop value-added software on top of OSS. Opportunities in China beyond desktop/server, such as embedded, cell phones, set-top boxes, and telecommunications, all of which are China's strengths.
Threats Competition with incumbent software and infrastructure. Software IP [Editor's Note: I would argue this is NOT unique to China.].


The future of OSS in China is bright because of the government's strong support, as the traits of OSS match well with what China is in pursuit of:

Availability of free source code
This helps develop China's own software products with customized needs and requirements.
Availability of infrastructure software
Among the OSS, there is a suite of infrastructure software, such as Linux as OS, Apache as web server, MySQL as database, and JBoss as application servers. These complement what China currently lacks.

The strategic value proposition of China's developing OSS capabilities includes:

Financial perspective—cost
In 2003, government IT spending totaled U.S.$2.8 billion, or RMB 23.1 billion. Government IT spending is expected to maintain a fast growth rate of around 18% through 2008 in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Expo 2010 Shanghai. By then, total government IT spending is projected to reach U.S.$5.7 billion, or RMB 47.2 billion. The 2003-2007 CAGR will reach 15.3%.[15]

The packaged software market was calculated at U.S.$264.3 million or RMB 3.5 billion, in 2003 and represented 9.5% of overall government IT spending. Along with the increasing standardization of government application software and government emphasis on software, especially security and storage software, the packaged software market will maintain a fairly high CAGR of 21.7% in the next five years and will eventually reach U.S.$706.3 million or RMB 5.9 billion in 2007.[16] That spending may help jump-start the local software industry to be profitable and create a revenue stream for OSS.

Security consideration
By allowing access to the source code, OSS-based applications allow organizations to help ensure that the software they use can protect against viruses and hackers, which are becoming more and more of a concern to a well-functioning IT capability. While cost is important, security can be more significant. Concerning information security, it is imperative to get transparency from the solution and software products, which is hard to realize from proprietary products. OSS shows all the source code, which greatly relieves government concern.
Growth opportunities to create a balanced software industry
The infrastructure OSS applications are prominently featured in parts of China's software industry.
Developing a competitive edge in the software industry
The long-term goal of Chinese government of boosting the domestic software industry is to realize the transition of China from IT consumer to IT provider. It wants to play a leading role in the Linux/OSS community, in the hope of being recognized as one of the global standard makers and enablers.

Policies such as File 18[17] and File 41[18] have been published to support growth of the local software industry. It is suggested that for IT spending, government agencies consider support to domestic products/services.[19] If there are no appropriate local products/services, foreign ones can be considered. As such, certain governmental IT purchasing projects have favored indigenous vendors.

For example, the Beijing Municipal Government's IT purchasing by the end of 2001 had approved all six local vendors plus Microsoft, the only foreign vendor in the bidding.[20] The local Linux vendors and ISVs that provide products running on the Linux platform therefore have been given chances to make inroads into the public sector. That kicked off the first round of government purchasing of local software vendors.

The execution will be run from the top down—from central government to tier-one government agencies in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and other provinces—to tier-two and tier-three ones.

Apart from the efforts of the government and Linux distributors, multinational vendors (MNVs) are another significant force to foster growth. The MNVs include Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Sun, and SAP, to name just a few, many of which are the founding members of OSS communities, such as Open Source Development Labs (OSDL). Some of the endeavors that these MNVs have made include:

Back in 1999, Dell started to sell Linux-based servers. It also invested in Red Hat.[21]
For details, please see
Since 2000, when IBM invested $1 billion in advertising and R&D on Linux, it has fully supported Linux with all the offerings.[22] Support has been conducted from the Linux server side to the desktop. February 2005 has seen IBM make further commitments to Linux. It plans to spend another $100 million to develop a Linux version of Lotus Workplace to deploy on a Linux client.[23]
Intel advocates the idea of "platform of choice"—i.e., meeting the natural demand of the market and customers. Through its worldwide programs, Intel has brought together multiple players with an interest in OSS, including government agencies, institutions, and vendors, to collaborate on key projects as beacon/reference sites, nurture the native demand for cost-effective and high-performance localized solutions, and drive toward a broader customer base in a variety of industries with China's self-sustaining OSS ecosystem.
Linux is one of the key business focuses at Oracle. It has worked with Red Flag as well as Asianux.[24]
In addition to supporting Linux on the server side, SAP Labs China has worked with Red Flag since its establishment.[25]
Sun, as the innovator of Java© and, has entered into a licensing and co-development deal with CS2C for its Java Desktop System. By releasing its StarOffice codebase into OSS together with specific guidance on localization to support emerging markets in 2000, Sun essentially provisioned the desktop Linux market. Such movements have helped the local distributors to directly gain the technological strength and methodologies, and bridge the gap between Chinese companies and foreign ones.

These efforts have helped contribute to the rapid development of OSS on computer systems in China, with more boxes sold with more services and hardware (mainly servers); and with more PCs for market segments such as education. But to China's software industry, their involvement escalates a healthy growth circle.

Last but not least, the impact of government's strong push has a ripple effect throughout the whole economy, at different levels.

Momentum has built around the ecosystem of Linux/OSS. As previously stated, the Chinese government has taken the lead in adopting open source products in IT systems. This pattern continues and gradually carries over into hardware, business applications, and the IT services sectors. Some of the major Chinese hardware manufacturers, such as Lenovo, have preinstalled Linux in desktop PCs and ISVs, such as Kingsoft, have provided applications that can run on the Linux platform.

Educational institutions also appear to be rapidly adopting Linux, as do financial services and telecom companies. Communications and process manufacturing verticals will likely be the most aggressive adopters, with plans to deploy Linux in two to five years. As for SMEs, they have also shown signs of moving toward Linux, mainly due to consideration of total cost of ownership. Some mission-critical applications have been seen in these verticals.

Another recent trend of OSS effort in China is that of standardization. First is Asianux, initiated by Red Flag and Japanese Linux vendor Miracle Linux, and created to standardize Linux distribution in Asia. Asianux involved validation of major ISV applications for compatibility. Recently, Korea also joined in the Asianux effort.[26] At the same time, a China-level Linux standardization effort was initiated in 2004 by China Electronics Standardization Institute (CESI). This standardization effort was later aligned with the Linux Standard Base (LSB) effort of the Free Standards Group (FSG).[27]

All these efforts and contributions have greatly strengthened the local OSS community's development, as well as helped government to roll out its Linux/OSS initiatives.


Currently, many OSS efforts and activities are centered on the Linux OS and Linux applications. Much of the effort is based on driving compatibility with other alternative OS or proprietary software applications. Compatibilities come in various forms, ranging from file formats, GUIs, user experience, plug-in availability, and so on.

Rampant piracy in the China market means that OSS software is expensive compared to pirated incumbent software, which is effectively free and thus cheaper and better, as OSS is trying to catch up. To convince end users to switch to something inferior and more expensive can be a very difficult value proposition.

While such attempts will continue from current players leveraging OSS to their advantages and strong government support behind the scenes, we believe success can also come in a different form—that of treating OSS as a form of disruptive technology and leveraging China's current strength to build successes in the software industry.

The disruption cannot be based on chasing after the incumbents in a well-established market. Only when OSS-based software offers unique end-user values unavailable from alternatives will end-user adoption follow. This conclusion follows from the theories laid out in The Innovator's Dilemma (Christensen). There are at least two implications:

  • Impact in niche markets without strong incumbent players. Examples include the cell phone handset market and the set-top box market. Both are Chinese strengths.
  • Impact in existing markets via delivering unique and new end-user values not currently served by incumbent software solutions.

Let's look at these two sets of opportunities.

The market for embedded software outside the conventional desktop or server opportunities

China is the world's largest consumer of cell phones and an emerging force in cell phone handset design and manufacture. With the world transitioning to next-generation cellular and wireless technologies, there are tremendous opportunities for Chinese cell phone manufacturers to use OSS—whether operating systems or applications software or software tools—to build a credible and sustainable cell phone handset business.

Similarly, China is in the forefront of producing consumer electronics devices, ranging from DVD players to next-generation digital TVs to set-top boxes. As the world of entertainment goes digital, such consumer electronics devices will demand more software, from operating systems to media codecs to GUI software to supporting new usages such as Personal Video Recording (PVR) capabilities.

The availability of OSS software potentially allows these consumer electronics manufacturers to more easily create the entire software stack and to build the entire system with greater ease. The Chinese embedded market players, which are good at producing high-volume systems at competitive price points, may view OSS as the foundation on which to add innovative usages and to deliver new business models for this age of digital communication and entertainment. The creators and suppliers of such software stacks may be ISVs, rather than the system manufacturers themselves.

Delivering innovations and unique end-user values on top of available OSS—values not currently served by the presently available software.

For example, the difficulty entering Chinese characters using alphanumeric keyboards means opportunities to create value-added pen-based or other, better input methods for Chinese characters. This type of end-user value can be delivered on top of OSS and can help to offset some of the current shortcomings of the current OSS offerings.

Another example specific to China is the strong focus on education by Chinese families and society at large. The opportunities here would be in the form of better learning software for schools and homes and easier-to-manage e-classrooms, the values of which would be delivered and built on top of already available OSS software stacks.

The preceding two cases present the potential opportunities for OSS as a disruptive technology when combined with China's strengths and core competencies.

Another opportunity that is also unique to China lies in the intersection of the growing Original Design Manufacturing (ODM) base in China and Chinese Taiwan, and the recently announced open source implementation of a next-generation BIOS technology code-named Tiano,[28] formally known as Intel Platform Innovation Framework for Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI).

The open sourced Foundation of Tiano, combined with the standardizations of the firmware interface via EFI, opened up opportunities for ODM and its partners to deliver more platform-level values to end users, in particular in areas of manageability, security, serviceability, and administrative interface, which are otherwise more difficult to implement in the old BIOS environment. This also represents the first example of serious OSS effort in the firmware/BIOS layer in the software stack shown in Figure 13-1.

Where OSS Is Going for China and Beyond

Although the road ahead is full of challenges, the government and end users are helping to drive OSS adoption and enhancement in China to be a significant component of the software industry. More importantly, China recognizes the value of helping drive OSS to build a healthy and sustainable software industry. It is our belief that what is needed is to prove OSS can be used to create several successful businesses in China, and to do so soon.

The SWOT analysis of OSS in China presented in this chapter pointed to various scenarios, mostly happening in parallel. First, strong government support will be a key force for continued experiments and deployment of OSS in government-related usages. There will be many attempts to replicate the success of OSS in server environments and in client environments. The challenge of trying to replace clients served by strong incumbents with OSS alternatives will remain—innovations to deliver unique end-user values are critical here.

Software piracy will likely continue, but the effort to contain it will strengthen; we expect the results and impact to be felt over time. China's strong manufacturing base in computing, communication, and entertainment systems as the world becomes more digital further present unparalleled opportunities for China to leverage OSS as a strong base for innovations and to bring more value to end users. With all this happening, the Linux/OSS talent pool will continue to grow, and many more developers will make attempts to leverage OSS to create meaningful business models.

One thing is certain. We expect many changes in the Chinese OSS landscape in the years ahead. China's policy choices with respect to OSS will have a profound impact on how China educates its talent pools, how it grows its software industry, and how it competes in the global arena. A SWOT analysis at the turn of the next decade—i.e., 2010—will most certainly have a very different outcome.


  2. and
  8. Nielse Jiang, "China Linux 2005-2009 Forecast and Analysis." IDC, Feb. 2005.
  9. Nielse Jiang, "China Linux 2005-2009 Forecast and Analysis." IDC, Feb. 2005.
  15. Enid Du, "China Government Industry Solution 2004-2008 Forecast and Analysis." IDC, Nov. 2004.
  16. Enid Du, "China Government Industry Solution 2004-2008 Forecast and Analysis." IDC, Nov. 2004.
  19. and
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