Sun Shines on China

Vast market may tilt global balance toward open source, predicts Jason Brooks.

A few years ago, a James Bond film hit the screens that centered on a scheme to secure exclusive TV broadcasting rights in China for 100 years. Aside from demonstrating just how lame the Bond series had become, the plot pointed to the enormous promise of the 1.3-billion-person Chinese market. At last months Comdex, Sun Microsystems chief Scott McNealy borrowed a page from the Bond script when he announced that Sun will be selling as many as 1 million copies of its newly minted Linux-based Java Desktop System to China in the next year.

The announcement is certainly a big one for Sun. However, the deal marks a much bigger milestone for free software in general, and it points the way to how Linux will come to clean Microsofts clock on the desktop.

The components that compose Java Desktop System come straight from the free-software shelf. As sold in the United States, Java Desktop System runs atop SuSE Linux, but Sun has indicated that the version sold to China may depend on a locally sourced distribution. Whether your Linux source is Sun or some local provider, its still one platform, and the same skills apply.

I read a post on the Web site that joked that wed soon see bootleg copies of Java Desktop System for sale on Chinese street corners for next to nothing. But seeding the market, rather than reaping profit, is Suns goal.

The company isnt even discussing how much money it will bring in. Sun sells Java Desktop System for $100 per system per year, or for $150 per employee per year with the rest of Suns enterprise software stack, but the company has spoken publicly about volume pricing as low as $10 per citizen per year for large government deals.

The Sun deal also includes helping with the forthcoming deployment of 200 million Linux-based desktops throughout China. Sun has signed up to be a "preferred technology partner" for a government-funded consortium of Chinese companies charged with managing the deployment. Sun will be providing what will amount to consulting services for this consortium, getting the group up and running and into the loop.

A comparable plan based on desktops running Microsoft Windows and Office would be too costly to countenance—without piracy, at least. In addition, an approach anchored on Windows and Microsoft Office would eliminate any option of local businesses eventually taking over the reins without significant disruption.

Its likely that the bulk of the agreements value for Sun will come in the form of high-profile press and solid leads for selling hardware and associated services.

Looming of larger importance is that China is a market in which desktop Linux has an excellent shot at thriving. In the United States, resistance to a desktop built of Linux, Mozilla, StarOffice, and either GNOME or KDE has less to do with missing functionality than with the fact that the combined system isnt Windows. This isnt an issue in places such as China, where the prevalence of computers is dramatically less than it is in the United States. For these places, Linux will become the base-line platform and the one against which others must match up.

As Linux and open source expand more broadly through these large, underserved markets, a network effect similar to the one Windows enjoys will take hold. With open source, however, the network of users, developers and resellers will have an ownership stake in the improvement and further spread of their platform, which is not possible with a proprietary platform.

With countries such as China and India becoming major centers of technology manufacturing and outsourcing for the United States and the rest of the world, the platforms that rise to dominance in these places cant help but have an impact on us. Eventually, the qualities that will help Linux and open source succeed on desktops elsewhere in the world—those of vendor choice, flexible development and low cost—will be equally important and beneficial to enterprises in this country.

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Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at