Dissing Windows leaves China without many good OS options

They’re PCs.
They’re PCs.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Pity the poor Chinese government IT guys.

Beijing announced yesterday that it will no longer allow government offices to buy Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. Chinese state-run media agency Xinhua said the move to ditch Windows was due to Microsoft recently suspending support for Windows XP, which is used by a huge number of Chinese PC users. Beijing wanted to “avoid the awkwardness of being confronted with a similar situation again,” Xinhua said.

Regardless of the rationale, China now faces the difficult prospect of either leaving its government operations running on antiquated and non-secure software, or moving them to some other operating system altogether.

Building and maintaining operating systems is notoriously difficult, and requires skills and expertise that are not normally associated with gargantuan government bureaucracies.

The obvious choice for China is an OS based on the open-source software Linux, which comes in myriad versions, including the Google-designed Android OS that now powers most of the world’s smartphones. Indeed, Xinhua noted that “there are several Linux-based operating systems developed by Chinese companies, such as KylinOS and StartOS,” but admitted that “they have not proved popular.” Still they may be the best thing available—HP is shipping computers with the operating system Ubuntu Kylin in an attempt to cater to Windows XP users.

China’s government has been involved in the development of a homegrown operating system, but it’s for smartphones, not desktops. COS, or China Operating System, was developed over the past year or so by a company called Shanghai Liantong and the Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. When it launched in January, commentators quickly noted that COS looked eerily similar to HTC Sense, a variant of Android deployed by the Chinese hardware firm, and did little more than duplicate existing Android features.

Microsoft won’t lose too much sleep if China makes good on its threat to ditch Windows 8, as the company has long bemoaned that because of software piracy it generates less revenue from China than from the Netherlands. And as for those beleaguered Chinese government IT managers, maybe it’s time to ask their bosses to buy a bunch of iMacs.