Internet & Tech

Shutting its Gates

Red Flag fails in bid to replace Microsoft OS


Send us the Bill: XP set to be axed

According to the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report, Bill Gates had a frustrating first day when he returned to Microsoft this month as its technology adviser. The Microsoft founder struggled to install the Windows 8.1 upgrade, and eventually admitted defeat and reverted back to Windows 7.

Of course, it was a hoax story.

But in 2003 Gates really did send a three-page email ripping into senior staff after spending hours trying to download Movie Maker, a Microsoft application. (Search “Bill Gates rant” and the full text of the leaked memo is still available online.)

But Microsoft-related humour is likely to be lost on Chinese computer users in less than two months’ time. On April 8 Microsoft will finally retire Windows XP, an operating system (OS) that was released 13 years ago but still runs on at least 200 million Chinese computers. Three out of four computers will face increased risks from hackers and spyware once Microsoft stops security updates and support for Windows XP, reckons Economic Daily.

The easiest solution, as Microsoft has earnestly advised, is to upgrade to more recent Window releases. But the migration migraine involves buying a new OS. And given that a lot of Chinese software is developed for Windows XP, the Economic Daily thinks Chinese enterprises and government bodies will need to invest massively in new IT solutions during a transition period (which is expected to take two or three years).

That creates business opportunities for software and internet firms, mind you. Tencent teamed up with Kingsoft, Sogou and other internet service providers this week to provide technical assistance to “hedge” against XP’s shutdown.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, gloomy headlines such as “China’s XP apocalypse” have seen pundits bemoaning the country’s reliance on foreign computer technology.

“The era for XP will end soon but a new one hasn’t dawned. Where is our own OS?” the China Economic Times asked.

The answer isn’t heartening. Red Flag Linux, the leading homegrown OS designer, has just gone under. According to website Techweb, the company has had problems paying its employees for a year. Blaming the absence of an expected state subsidy, Red Flag said it has terminated all of its employee contracts and will liquidate its assets. About 150 staff are now petitioning for a combined Rmb15 million ($2.5 million) in unpaid salaries.

Red Flag is a state-backed firm under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). When it was first released in 2000, the company’s open source OS was said to pose a significant threat to Microsoft within the domestic market – especially since government bodies were under orders to buy it to replace Windows 2000.

But Red Flag failed to achieve critical mass for a variety of reasons. One of the major ones was Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM’s personal computer business. The 2004 deal was Lenovo’s statement that it was ‘going global’ but there were domestic ramifications: from that point on China’s biggest PC maker was keener to bundle its computers with Windows OS. A company that might have been one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Red Flag – Lenovo was founded by CAS too – more or less ditched it.

Red Flag’s overreliance on state support also fostered a complacent mindset, according to the 21CN Business Herald, leading to an inferior product. Many users preferred pirated Windows OS even if a PC came with Red Flag Linux installed. The Changjiang Daily is reporting that Red Flag’s market share is less than 1%. Six other Chinese OS designers have all failed to gain share too.

Despite Red Flag’s predicament, some experts, including veteran CAS professor Ni Guangnan, are calling for renewed government support to boost homegrown designers. But the most crucial OS market, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily, has shifted from computers to smartphones. Red Flag’s biggest legacy, the newspaper suggests, is bolstering concerns that China must develop homegrown operating systems. (See WiC225 for our article about a new Chinese smartphone OS that is set to compete with Google’s Android.)

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