What Does China Have Against Apple, Microsoft, and Google?

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

In just a couple of months, the Chinese government may introduce its own desktop operating system to compete with Apple and Microsoft — and the government is reportedly planning to develop a mobile version of the operating system to take on Google as well. According to state media agency Xinhua, China’s “homegrown” operating system is expected to be ready for distribution in October.

Ni Guangnan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering said that the operating system will first be available for desktop, and later for smartphones and other devices. He noted of the current state of development: “China has more than a dozen mobile OS developers with no independent intellectual property rights because their research is based on Android,” Google’s open-source operating system, and said that future development should be led by the Chinese government.

Guangnan’s comments first appeared in the People’s Post and Telecommunications News, an official trade paper run by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), and Reuters provided a translation. “We hope to launch a Chinese-made desktop operating system by October supporting app stores,” he said, and noted that he hoped domestically-built software would be able to replace existing, foreign-built desktop operating systems within one to two years and mobile operating systems within three to five years. He explained that while some Chinese operating systems already exist, there is still a large gap between China’s technology and that of other developed countries.

China is motivated to develop and distribute its own national operating system not only by that gap, but also by several factors: a desire to compete with Apple, Microsoft, and Google, and to counteract Microsoft’s monopoly over the market, growing concern over the possibility of U.S. surveillance, and security issues exacerbated by Microsoft’s ending of support for Windows XP.

Microsoft ended support for Windows XP —  the operating system that makes up 50 percent of China’s desktop market

In May, Reuters reported that China had banned the use of Microsoft’s Windows 8 on government computers, effectively throwing a wrench into the company’s plans to push Windows 8 as the replacement for Windows XP, which is widely used in China. (The ban, however, doesn’t affect private users.) Despite appeals from Chinese officials, Microsoft ended official support for XP in April in order to encourage users to upgrade to newer and more secure versions of the operating system. So Chinese consumers have to either upgrade to a newer operating system, or live with dwindling protection against malware and other security threats.

Microsoft has also struggled with sales in China due to the prevalence of piracy. Reuters noted that former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer reportedly told employees in 2011 that the company earned less revenue in China than in the Netherlands, even though Chinese computer sales figures matched those of the United States.

Apple, Microsoft, and Google dominate the Chinese tech market

Reuters reports that the MIIT said in March that Google has too much control over the Chinese market because of the popularity of the Android mobile operating system. The ban on running Windows 8 on government computer likely represents the beginning of a series of regulations aimed at making it easier for a national operating system to compete with the desktop operating systems offered by Apple, Microsoft, and Google — OS X, Windows, and Chrome OS.

China mistrusts U.S. companies following revelations of NSA surveillance

China and the U.S. have traded escalating accusations of hacking following last year’s revelations of NSA spying, and reports that U.S. intelligence has placed “backdoor” surveillance tools on devices made in the U.S. Whether willingly or unwillingly, the U.S. corporations that manufacture those products have facilitated U.S. spying, and enabled the NSA to bypass measures meant to protect the privacy of users. Since those revelations, Chinese consumers’ trust of U.S. tech companies has been impacted, and sales have taken a hit.

As The Washington Post points out, the announcement of a national operating system comes at a time when China is looking to make the transition from adapting technology developed by U.S. companies to building its own. Many western companies now have powerful Chinese counterparts: Alibaba for Amazon, Weibo for Twitter, even Xiaomi for Apple. It’s logical for Chinese tech companies to sell products with a domestically developed operating system, one that’s customized to the specific parameters of the market. (Samsung followed a similar tactic by developing its Tizen operating system to sell smartphones and tablets in Asian markets.) But absent from that lineup of tech companies is one that’s built a commercially successful operating system, desktop or mobile. Why is that?

Most hardware companies either license existing operating systems or use open-source systems like Google’s Android, in part because it makes it easier to quickly introduce new hardware — smartphones, tablets, or computers — that are on par with what consumers can buy from western companies. That’s why, for example, so many smartphone manufacturers use Android, either Google’s standard version or their own derivation, or why a large number of computer manufacturers license Microsoft’s Windows. Whether a state-controlled operating system takes hold and supersedes these options will in large part determine the future shape of China’s tech industry.

Conversely, open-source innovations are driven by developers and entrepreneurs — which is very different from proprietary systems, like Apple’s iOS and OS X, and top-down systems like a state-controlled initiative. As the Chinese government seeks to avoid exposing the country to backdoors and surveillance by the NSA, a state-controlled operating system could let it build in its own backdoors to monitor and censor users. But even if Chinese consumers understandably consider a national operating system a safer alternative to U.S.-built systems, it would take some considerable effort for such a system to take hold. Android runs 85 percent of smartphones, Windows runs 92 percent of desktops, and the dominance of Microsoft, Google, and Apple will be difficult to overturn.

That dominance in itself may be a good answer to the question of why operating systems by non-U.S. companies aren’t more prevalent. It’s faster and cheaper to license existing proprietary operating systems or to use available open-source ones, whether Android or Linux, than to develop something new. Getting manufacturers and consumers to adopt a new operating system is not only difficult, but a challenge with which China is already familiar.

More than a decade ago, China launched the development of Kylin, a FreeBSD-based operating system, and Ubuntu Kylin, its successor, was announced last year. In 2003, China, Japan, and South Korea began an effort to Lunix-based operating system called Asianux. China also built an operating system called Red Flag Linux, though the project was killed when the company behind it was liquidated.

Finally, COS, or China Operating System, is a state-funded Linux system for mobile devices that also failed to take off. None of those projects were successful in making a significant dent in U.S. companies’ dominance on Chinese consumers’ computers and other devices.

Whether a Chinese-made operating system will succeed will depend on its ability to compete with the other options on the market. Though many consumers express concerns about security and surveillance, those concerns prompt few to opt out of using smartphones and other technology. While it may be easier to trust an operating system and hardware developed and built in your own country, that operating system would need to do everything that Windows and OS X, or even Android and iOS, can do — maybe even a little bit more — to get Chinese consumers to adopt it. China has yet to prove that it can successfully build that kind of product and get consumers on board.

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