The debate over operating systems in China mirrors, to a large extent, the broader debate over the future of the Internet that’s happening in developing markets. After years of borrowing and adapting Western technology, countries like China are now making a move to develop their own version of the Internet where homegrown companies and technologies can flourish. As a result, in China you have a growing number of companies that, arguably, are just as powerful as their Western counterparts. For every Amazon, there is an Alibaba. For every Twitter, there is a Weibo. For every Apple, there is a Xiaomi.
Now that Xiaomi is the No. 1 smartphone vendor in China, there does seem to be a competitive reason to develop a “Made in China” operating system. You can think of the operating system as the engine that powers how people access and use the Internet, and so it’s only logical that Chinese smartphone and tablet makers would rather use a “domestic” OS than a “foreign” OS. First and foremost, it would help them sell more products if the OS has been customized to domestic market parameters. Samsung, for example, developed the Tizen operating system as an alternative to Android as part of a strategy to sell more smartphones and tablets.
However, the development of a Chinese homegrown OS is about more than just China’s tech giants finally catching up with Silicon Valley. To a certain degree, it’s about the future of the Internet and the way it’s architected from here on out. Will the future of innovation be bottoms-up (created by grassroots programmers and entrepreneurs) or top-down (created by the state)?
If you think about a mobile operating system such as Android — it’s mostly been about the phenomenal growth of the open-source movement and the ability of individual programmers to cobble together code that best meets the needs of the market. In that regard, Android is fundamentally different from Apple’s iOS, which is a proprietary operating system. This new Chinese OS, almost certainly, would be much more of a top-down initiative from the Chinese government (via the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) that may be more about meeting the needs of the government rather than meeting the needs of consumers.
If millions — or tens of millions — of smartphones and tablets eventually run the new Chinese OS, the Chinese government would theoretically be able to influence — and perhaps even control — the way Chinese Internet users receive and use information. As has often been rumored, China’s government could build in backdoors and trapdoors to make it easier to monitor, control and censor users. As a preview of what’s to come, Microsoft Windows 8 has been banned in China for use on new government computers since May.
So would you use and install a Chinese-made operating system if it were faster and more powerful than anything on the market today? The knee-jerk reaction, of course, would be to say “No way.” All those backdoors sound scary. And anything created by a government can’t be as good as something dreamed up in Silicon Valley, right?
If the new Chinese OS ever gets off the ground, it would represent yet another attempt to wrest the Internet away from the United States — the same way that the Chinese are making a play to take over ICANN and control the way we access the Internet. At the end of the day, Android still runs 85 percent of smartphones and Windows runs 92 percent of desktops. It will take time to overcome this market dominance. But, according to the Chinese, it will be possible to compete with operating systems such as Android and Windows within five years. One day, it may not just be your computer hardware that’s “made in China.” It may be what’s running your desktop, laptop or tablet.