Last week a journalist of an open source magazine in UK asked me several questions on the subject of Open Source in China, here I am sharing the answers:
Question: Can you tell me how you got involved in open source, and how healthy and vibrant you perceive the free software movement to be in China?
Answer: I was involved with free software when I joined UNDP China as an IT manager back to 5 years ago. There are several Linux servers in UNDP’s server room which are my responsibility to administer. I then bought several Linux books and taught myself some simple Linux commands. I end up like these linux servers very much for their outstanding performance and stability. That’s the start of my Linux experience. I was lucky that Beijing Linux User Group was just founded when I joined it and I become an early and key member of the team, which put me in the social scene of open source people in Beijing. I have kept learning new tricks from other geeks since then.
The free software movement in China is quite vibrant comparing to other developing countries in Asia (not Japan, South Korea or Taiwan). I’d say it’s also quite healthy in the sense that it encourages sharing, innovation, and self learning among young generations, but there are also some main drawbacks which may cause the development of free software unsustainable in long term:
1. Lack of commitment and support from big enterprises, which in many cases due to people’s lack of understanding about Open Source license.
2. Absent/lack of Free Software concept/knowledge on computer textbooks in current education system
These days I have read some new actions taken by Chinese government to improve the situation of the above mentioned problems, and I believe those changes are for good.
- Question: We hear good news stories about Chinese organisations adopting open source from time to time. What is your view of government and enterprise migration to Linux in China? Is Linux still very niche, or do you believe it is really gaining a foothold in the country?
Answer: In my view these migrations were only good when it brought values to the Chinese organizations, with improved efficiency/security and reduced cost. As a fan of free software, I am aware of the philosophical and technical implications of FOSS to society in general, but when it comes to the business world, I believe the product value is almost the only key factor. Linux has gained a foothold in China only in some industry where it actually demonstrate a significant competitive advantage than other platforms, like in telecommunication sector. By the time more innovative solutions are developed based on Linux, I believe it will gain foothold in other business sectors too.
- Question: A lot of people in the UK think of China as having a huge pool of computer scientists who could play an important role in the growth of open source if they learn on Linux-based systems rather than Windows. (I read that 100,000 programmers graduate in China each year.) Can you give me your perspective on that? Do you think it is possible that some of the Linux migrations in Chinese schools and universities will lead to a Linux-based IT industry in China in a few years?
Answer: Free software in the sense that it gives user the freedom to study it and improve it, made it a perfect educational OS for computer science student to understand how the wheels been invented in the first place. I am a strong advocate for computer science student should develop their skills on Linux along with other skills on other platforms, then it’s up to their own decision for which platform that they’d like to adapt when they become decisions makers for enterprise IT solutions. I believe some Linux migrations in Chinese schools and university will give students access to know/learn about Linux, and in long term will be favorable to a widely adaption of linux technology in IT industry. It’s favorable to students too for they would have built a more flexible/agile skill set which will lead to better job opportunities.
- Question: With software piracy rates in China so high and proprietary software being almost free as in beer, do FOSS advocates like yourself have to work harder to persuade users to try Linux than advocates in other countries?
Answer: I don’t like to use the word persuade. It’s true that there is almost no economic incentive for users to opt Linux over Windows on their PCs in China, but let’s face the fact that this option has rarely been an economical decision. Even in developed countries, where people has to pay for proprietary software as enforced by copyright law, how many Linux users have chosen Linux merely because it’s free as in beer? Linux is a better product than Windows in many perspectives, and my role is to introduce people come to see Linux as they are, I am passionate about this job but there is no such a message in my speech that Linux is better than Windows in every perspective, and personally I think strong/aggressive selling is actually manipulating other people’s mind, I have tried to respect every individual’s own judgment to make the best decision for themselves.
I am posting this blog as part of the discussion initiated by Stephen Walli, who has got plenty of wise opinions on Open Source business in general: