Recent history is strewn with the corpses of national operating system projects and it is probably too early to tell whether Canonical's Ubuntu ‘Kylin’ collaboration with China’s Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (CSIP) will pan out any differently.
The usual reason for failure is that nobody wants them apart from the Government that orders their creation.
Iran forked Linux into something called Ghasedak in 2011, ostensibly because it believed that the proprietary alternatives were riddled with back doors put there by US vendors. It is hard to tell how extensively it is used beyond its core market, Iran's Government, and certainly no dissident Iranian would touch it.
Russian versions of Unix go back decades but in 2010 the Government made a public point of adopting Linux as its approved national operating system, again as a way of avoiding the infernal Yankees and their popular if pricey Windows. Usage? Hard to tell.
Last September, Russia reportedly followed this up with tablets running a de-Googled version of Android, the better to stymie the search giant’s attempt to track where FSB officers buy their caviar.
China’s alliance with the often unloved Canonical and its Ubuntu is altogether different and seems to have far larger ambitions than any of the above, which is where it gets interesting.
The Chinese Government wants the Kylin OS to become a national system for more or less everything, a strategy that ties in so nicely with Canonical’s converged model you could have sworn the British company invented it to order. It will run on PCs and servers, or course, but also smartphones and tablets.
“The announcement is part of the Chinese government’s five year plan to promote open source software and accelerate the growth of the open source ecosystem within China,” said Canonical.
Engineers from Canonical, CSIP and China’s National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) are already beavering away on the project with a April release date as part of the 13.04 cycle.
Ubuntu is a bit different because it’s already a mature product the Chinese Government will just need to tweak to suit its preferences, which is surely where the real problem becomes apparent.
Beyond localisation, there will be integration with Baidu maps, the Dash music service, the Taobao shopping service, and the WPS office suite. This will not be a dusty, unusable OS short of tools and possibilities.
Who will use this state-approved Ubuntu Sino-fork? And why does China want or need it?
China’s been here before of course; Red Flag Linux proudly waved its red banner, turning up in Internet cafes as far back as 2007. At the time that was quite a big market and one that didn’t take kindly to being spied on. It doesn’t seem to have got very far beyond that sector and so the Government is trying again using a foreign partner.
All this in a country where pirated copies of Windows are said to be a $5 on every street corner.
The interesting point (apart from the possibility that a version of Linux is about to acquire hundreds of millions of users) is whether China’s growing band of techie brothers will actually want to use something built by the man.
Steve Ballmer was once laughed at for describing Linux as being like Communism and, ironically, that could be precisely why it won’t turn out to be as popular as China’s Government hopes.