Last month, Fortune magazine ran an interesting article about how Microsoft got its groove on in the massive Chinese market by striking deals with Chinas government and how Microsofts success in China appears to be coming at the expense of Linux and open-source software.
The Fortune article points specifically to Chinas homegrown Red Flag Linux distribution, but when I read the story, my thoughts turned instead to Sun Microsystems ill-fated deal with the Chinese government to deploy as many as 200 million Linux-based PCs in the country. The deal promised to be a major coup for Linux and for Sun, and then-Sun chief Scott McNealy noted that the agreement would make Sun the worlds largest Linux player. Instead, Sun chose to change course relatively quickly, dropping its Linux-based JDS (Java Desktop System) as a product altogether and getting back to work on Solaris.
Even if Sun hadnt ditched its desktop ambitions, Microsoft was ready to make the Chinese government an offer it wouldnt want to refuse. Microsoft agreed to pony up its source code for review, accept an average $7 of revenue per PC (versus $100 to $200 apiece elsewhere), look the other way on software piracy and participate in Chinas efforts to curb online dissent.
To read more about Microsofts domination in China, click here.
Its tempting to focus on major deals such as these as potential game-changing events. However, massive top-down initiatives arent what drive adoption of new platforms and standards, and this will continue to hold true for Linux and open source. The road ahead must hearken back to the founding principles of open source.
The Eric Raymond essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" describes the power that software projects can draw from the decentralized contributor communities that collect around popular open-source applications, and the robustness of projects such as Linux and Firefox demonstrate Raymonds thesis.
However, the bazaar that Microsoft still rules is the literal one, as the Windows platform boasts a decentralized network of individuals and businesses that ranges from back-alley Windows bootleggers to large ISVs and OEMs, with a packed spectrum of other distribution and service providers in between. Microsofts deals with the Chinese government arent built to extend the reach of Windows in China but to defend that reach from open-source encroachment.
An increasing number of large IT vendors have thrown their support behind open source. But, for Linux and open source really to break into the mainstream, a much broader set of stakeholders must recognize and figure out how best to seize the opportunity to redirect license fee dollars into their own pockets.
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