Internet & Tech

The operative question

A new ‘homegrown’ smartphone technology arouses much discussion


Beijing would rather have phones like this running COS not Android

Virtually everyone in China is now familiar with the Chinese Dream, a concept that President Xi Jinping started promoting a year ago. According to Xi, it is about national rejuvenation and building a prosperous society. But the Chinese Dream is being intepreted in many other fields, says the People’s Daily, including technological ones. One example? A homegrown platform for tablets, smartphones and PCs. This is a move “to realise the Chinese dream in the field of operating systems,” the newspaper suggests.

The China Operating System (or COS) has been developed by a company called Shanghai Lian Tong, with the help of ISCAS (Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences) as well as government funding. “The release of COS aims to break the monopoly that foreign companies have on fundamental software, and to introduce an operating system with our own intellectual property rights,” says Li Minshu, director of the institute. In China, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS control more than 90% of the market, says research firm IDC.

Chinese companies have been working on COS for a while, after a research institute associated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology made public that Beijing didn’t like Chinese reliance on Google’s Android, and also accused the US firm of discriminating against local hardware manufacturers. (Google has denied the allegations).

So how is COS different to other operating systems? The system is still in the development phase but its makers have released a promotional film to showcase some of its features. Industry reponse was muted. Engadget, a US tech blog, says the operating system looks very “Android-like” and that “some of its features, like multitasking, content streaming and remote desktop, are nothing new”.

Tech experts in China were sceptical too. Most agreed that COS “looks a lot like Android”. Others pointed out that the user interface bears a remarkable resemblance to software produced by Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC. The registered office address for COS is even a former address for HTC in Shanghai, further fuelling the assocation. Eagle-eyed netizens noted that a few of the phones used in COS promo clips match those produced by HTC too, says Xinmin Evening News.

But Wu Yanjun, an ISCAS researcher who led the team developing the homegrown system, denies that it mimics existing technology. “Apart from a few details, we developed almost everything by ourselves,” Wu told the People’s Daily. “Of course, [the software] has billions of lines of code, but we developed them entirely by ourselves, and it can be regarded as independent intellectual rights.”

Cynics hit back that China has a history of knocking off foreign technology and calling it homegrown. In 2006, a group of scientists in Shanghai Jiaotong University claimed that they had produced an integrated-circuit chip as fast as one from Motorola, for instance. But it turned out that the only innovation was to replace the chip’s Motorola label with one of their own. The Kylin operating system – an earlier project funded by the National 863 High-Tech Programme – was also found to have plagiarised foreign software.

But will COS take off commercially? Industry observers say that it is going to be an uphill climb. “On the one hand, the global market has practically become monopolised [by Android]. On the other hand, operating systems are not just about technology, but also marketing, user experience and investment. If all these areas are not properly dealt with, developing a homegrown operating system is going to be very tough,” says Sohu IT, a portal.

Xinhua says COS will depend heavily on support from hardware manufacturers and application developers for success. When Android was first launched, Google had to convince phone manufacturers, software developers and telecom operators to join its Open Handset Alliance to promote it as an operating system. “If you just rely on one or two handset makers, it is difficult to maintain the development costs for the operating system. I think the only attraction of COS is that it is ‘homegrown’ and it’s not likely to become mainstream,” says software developer Zhang Heng.

Yet COS is another example of China’s desire to prove itself as a serious innovator. According to a study released in December by US-based Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest nonprofit research and development trust, R&D spending in China will reach $284 billion in 2013, up 22% from 2012. That compares with 4% growth forecast in the US (admittedly for a $465 billion spend in the same period). Battelle forecasts China will surpass Europe in R&D spending by 2018 and exceed the US by 2022.

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