November 2, 2006

Behind the upsurge in Chinese open source communities

Author: Chen Nan Yang

When Novell and Red Hat set up open source communities in China last year, most Chinese companies merely watched. Recently, however, China-based software companies have begun to show a greater interest in creating communities of their own. TurboLinux and Red Flag have created Whitefin and Linux-Ren, respectively. Red Flag also plans to create two additional open source communities -- UMPC (with Intel) and OpenAsianux -- before the end of this year. Why have Chinese companies suddenly changed their tunes?

Zhou Qun, the general manager of TurboLinux, says there are two reasons why TurboLinux set up Whitefin: lack of open source talent has been hindering the company's development, so they hope to find more talent from within the community; and they also hope to promote the company's desktop system through Whitefin.

Part of the momentum behind this change comes from the Chinese government, which now regards open source communities as a key to its software industry and will put more resources toward them in its eleventh Five-Year-Plan period (2006-2010). "As a banner of China's Linux industry, Red Flag no doubt has more responsibilities to advocate the government's new tactic. It is vital to a government-supported company to take a good position in China," says a Chinese Linux expert who wished to remain anonymous. These new company-supported open source communities are lucky. They get support from companies, while the companies themselves get support from the government.

The communities supported directly by the government are fortunate as well. For example, the Leadership of Open Source University Promotion Alliance (LUPA), which is supported by China's Zhejiang province government, got a "promotional fund" of $1.25 million when it was established. More than 30% of the money comes from the government, and the majority of the rest is from government-supported companies.

By contrast, some volunteer-based open source communities are in trouble. Communities such as LinuxSir, ChinaJavaWorld, JavaUnion, and Huihoo are active but have no government backing, so programmers devoted to the open source ideal are their backbone.

That backbone, though, is fragile. Many Chinese programmers believe in hard work and making money, and they have no devotion to open source. Many programmers work more than 50 or 60 hours a week for their companies, making it impossible to do things for the open source community. "In China, the pressure of survival allows only a few programmers to have the will, time, and possibility to devote to open source development," says Yang Wei, an expert from the Chinese government's software department. As a result, there may be only a few "backbones" within a community, and if they get too busy or have money troubles, their community may disappear.

These "backbones" don't seem to worry too much about the difficulties they face, though. "I think these new communities with government backing are OK. I would go there if necessary. After all, they have more money and strength to give us a better environment to push the open source industry," says Chen Jiong, a Chinese programmer and regular visitor to LinuxSir.

But Chen also thinks that the new open source communities will be unable to make the industry better in the short term. "After all, the bottleneck of China's open source industry is the lack of devoted talent. Communities can't give birth to many new programmers in one night. It's a long-term project."

Zhang, another regular visitor to LinuxSir, said that the new open source communities may also have a negative impact on the industry. "Too many new communities may break up the cooperative relationship between the scarce Chinese open source programmers, so I think the cooperation between community and community is very important, at least at present."

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