Asian governments start to speak the same language on Linux implementations

Could Asia become a Linux stronghold? It’s positioning itself to become one, as governments here try to limit their dependence on the Windows operating system.

Japan, South Korea and China have been in talks to promote alternatives to Windows, Linux, in particular. Japan has already put aside

US$8.6 billion toward research in this area. And the Korean government is switching many of its computers from Windows to Linux, using Seoul-based Hancom Linux.

Microsoft should be starting to sweat.

Like other governments around the world, Japan, South Korea and China fear their networks are too dependent on Windows for security reasons.

(In some cases, like China, there’s a paranoia about building networks with CIA-influenced products.)

In hopes of alleviating some of these fears, Microsoft has offered to give its secret code to governments using Windows. And it has offered significant discounts to government agencies and school systems that purchase its software.

Despite these efforts, there’s still a strong movement toward Linux, particularly in Asia — and it’s perhaps the greatest threat to Microsoft’s dominance in the government market.

According to Japanese officials, the purpose of talks between Japan, South Korea and China is to share research findings, reduce the amount of money spent on Windows licensing and maintenance fees, and promote the use of Linux in the private sector.

The main goal is to come up with a Linux standard that will support Asian languages — which have many more characters than Western alphabets. In the Chinese language, for example, there are literally thousands of characters. Chinese developers have already come up with their own version of Linux called Red Flag Linux, touted by Chinese officials as a reliable alternative to Windows. Beijing-based Red Flag Software Co. claims its Linux software has been widely deployed in e-government and enterprise IT infrastructure in China.

Though Japan has no plans to develop its own version of Linux, it’s certainly encouraging the development of open source computing. It has put its money where its mouth is — to the tune of US$8.3 billion — to fund Linux developers in Japan. The Japanese government is also considering Linux when it upgrades its computer data files in 2005. Fujitsu, IBM Japan and Oki Electric Industry Co. have submitted a proposal that Linux be used to manage salary and other personnel data for the government’s 800,000 public servants. It’s expected the software will cut maintenance costs in half.

Linux is all over Asia

Both China and India are developing their Linux expertise in anticipation of a market boom — they’re even designing economic policies around this. Other governments, such as Singapore and Taiwan, plan to move their server architectures from Windows to Linux.

There are a number of reasons for the rise of Linux in Asia. Some government officials are worried about security. For others, it’s simply a matter of cutting costs. Unlike Windows, Linux is a free operating system, does not require licensing fees and can be easily modified. There are certainly benefits in creating a formidable competitor to Microsoft, even for governments that have no intention of switching from Windows to Linux. As Linux becomes a viable option in this market, it will provide leverage for governments wanting to negotiate new contracts with Microsoft (as was the case with the U.K. government, which was able to negotiate a huge discount with Microsoft by threatening to switch to Linux). But, with so much government interest, it’s important that vendors learn from past mistakes and avoid creating proprietary versions of Linux. Linux must remain open in order to go up against Microsoft.

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance journalist and former TIG editor. You can contact her at vhimmelsbach@itbusiness.ca

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