Raising the Red Flag

by Doc Searls

Given a combination of Chinese demographics and government encouragement, that may well be the case.

Raising the Red Flag

Red Flag Linux first appeared in August 1999, when it was created by the Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Financial help came from government-owned Shanghai NewMargin Venture Capital. In March 2001, Bloomberg News reported that CCIDNET Investment, a VC arm of the Ministry of Information Industry, had become Red Flag's second largest shareholder.

The same Bloomberg report said the purpose of Red Flag was to reduce domination of the Chinese computer market by Microsoft's Windows operating systems. The best way to do that, was to require "full transparency in terms of underlying code", said Matei Mihalca, Head of Internet Research, Asia-Pacific at Merrill-Lynch. (Interesting noun, transparency. A little different than "open" and "free". I have a feeling we'll be hearing more of it.)

Red Flag looks serious. The Chinese government doesn't just bristle at Microsoft's near-absolute market share of PC operating systems sold in China. It's as uncomfortable with operating systems that are opaque to the core. As a matter of routine, it is the custom of Customs to ask "what's in there?" And the routine answer from Microsoft is "none of your business." To a government concerned with security, that isn't always an acceptable answer.

Raising the Red Flag

So Microsoft doesn't only have a "piracy" problem in China, it has a transparency problem, as well as a determined foe on the part of the government's own Linux distro. It was a rather smooth chess move by the Chinese government to avoid copyright infringement and "software piracy" issues by simply promoting an operating system that obviates the issues.

And there is nothing to stop the government from being a customer of itself. According to Gartner, on December 28, 2001, the Beijing municipal government gave contracts to six local vendors and rejected the seventh. One of the six was Red Flag. The rejected seventh was Microsoft.

Red Flag is being aggressive too. It came out with an integrated desktop office suite called Chinese 2000. It signed a deal with Trolltech to create an embedded Linux platform that should be nontrivial, given the quantity of manufacturing going on in China. It joined the GNOME Foundation with the intent to localize GNOME for the Chinese population (of just 1.2 billion people). It has training and certification programs. It has a pile of products.

As for Linux on the Desktop, it isn't still on the horizon in China--it's in stores. "On a recent trip to China, I noticed that many of the Intel-compatible PCs for sale in several major department stores had a slightly different appearance than usual, apart from the language differences. I looked closely and realized they were running GNU/Linux", writes Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News. How much of that was Red Flag matters less than the fact that Linux is going mainstream in the world's largest country.

We first wrote about Red Flag two years ago, and now we're starting to think we need to pay a bit more attention. When we try to find out more on the Red Flag site, however, our lack of Chinese fluency presents a problem. Although Google and other sources point to an /english/ directory, it doesn't appear to be active. Translating the site by Babel Fish is an amusing diversion, however inaccurate. A link on the home page is titled, "Center the branch Red Flag for China will insert the type system structure future". On a page titled "The Red Flag inserts in the type system omnipresent - lottery ticket machine operating system the application", we find this:

In the hardware system aspect, Shenzhen thinks the happy data selects the industry control panel, this labor controls the board carries the string mouth, and the mouth, the Ethernet card and so on for the network transmission use, simultaneously, the external instrumentation was easy to expand, saves the hardware design cycle; The main engine disposition also sufficiently meets the need.

If anybody wants to give us some help on this whole subject, let us know.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

email: doc@ssc.com

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