An ambitious initiative in the Far East is set to challenge Microsoft's dominance. The Japanese, Chinese and South Korean governments are to back a scheme to build an operating system explicitly intended to dislodge Windows in Far Eastern markets, according to reports in Asian newspapers today.

The proposed system would be based on open source software such as Linux, although it is not clear whether this would be a government-backed distro, or just promotion for a system put together by the private sector. Given the well-known poor record of government-backed software, compared to commercial stuff (OSI networking and the Ada programming language, to name two) we would expect the latter.

The logic is certainly strong, given the strong performance of Linux in the region, and the generally patchy support available for local character sets in the Windows systems. Recent virus and worm attacks, which used Microsoft security flaws, are also quoted as reasons for moving away.

Japanese Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma will propose the idea at a meeting of economic ministers from the three nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Wednesday. Japanes newspaper Nihei Keizai Shimbun believes “agreement is likely”.

The idea of an “Asian Linux” has been around for a few months, but is likely to be overstated by the media. CNET reported in March that 100 programmers had met in Thailand, ready to start work on it. The story was dismissed by local Linux activists who said these were company representatives, not programmers.

However, there is certainly a lot of government support for Linux in the Far East. The Chinese government has already mandated that its offices should use only locally-produced software in their next upgrades – China has its own version of Linux, Red Flag, and an office productivity suite, RedOffice.

Already local Linux support is gaining a response. Microsoft cut the price of Windows software in Thailand in reponse to a government scheme to offer susbsidised Linux PCs using HP hardware to the less well-off there. It may be that one goal of this new inititiative is to force Microsoft to extend this generosity elsewhere in the Far East.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Taiwanese governments are interested enough in operating sytems to sign up to Microsoft’s shared source initiative, whereby they join other large users in gaining limited access to the Windows source code. In August, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry issued a statement encouraging industry to use Linux and not be put off by fears about trademark disputes.