23 October 2003

Howard Womersley Smith

Earlier this month, the governments of China, Japan and South Korea agreed on the formation of a joint open source software project. The project is intended to be applied to the use of desktop applications, embedded programs, middleware and operating systems by individuals, private organisations and public sector organisations within those countries.

The plan was proposed by the Japanese Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry when he met with the Chinese and South Korean governments at an ASEAN meeting at the beginning of this month.

The project holds numerous benefits both commercially and in terms of international relations. Not only will it enhance the domestic software industries of these countries, who have typically focused on the manufacture of hardware, but it will also enable them to pool their already vast knowledge of the technology sector. The project will also bring benefits in terms of scaleability (which will hopefully push down the price of the relevant products), security and reliability of the systems developed (hopefully reducing the number and impact of viruses).

The countries’ participation and particularly that of China, in the project is an encouraging sign of co-operation on technology issues between Asian countries rather than full-blown competition which has often been the case in the past.

Equally important is the fact that the project marks a firm commitment by Asian governments to break the dominance of western software companies in the operating system and applications market. The Chinese, Japanese and South Korean governments have all, at different times in the past, encouraged the use of open source software, such as Linux, by private organisations. This advice has been heeded by a number of Asian electronic manufacturers, such as Samsung and Toshiba, who recently set up the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (CELF) which aims to design a Linux based operating system for consumer electronics.

Other Asian countries, such as Malaysia, also support the use of open source software although they have been quick to maintain that this is because of the commercial and control benefits that such software holds, rather than any bias against foreign proprietary software, such as that provided by Microsoft.

Although Asian governments are ensuring that they do not name Microsoft specifically when discussing their open source plans, the result of their proposals is certain to have a resounding effect on Microsoft’s dominance in Asia. A recent survey by research firm IDC, found that more than 50% of Asian servers run some form of Microsoft Windows, whereas Linux and Unix type systems only amount to 6% and 3%, respectively.

Microsoft will also have to fight on two fronts as the announcement of the Asian project coincides with a report issued by the US Computer and Communications Industry Association which argues that reliance on a single technology, such as Windows operating system, threatens the security of the US economy and critical infrastructure.

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