Reuters boastfully stated that China has developed its own operating system: OpenKylin 1.0. In coming up with its own Linux distribution, the superpower could end its dependence on Windows. Can OpenKylin really replace Windows?
The new OS is said to have been developed by 4,000 developers. It’s reportedly already being put to use in the aerospace industry, financial services and energy companies. OpenKylin 1.0 is compatible with x86, ARM and also on RISC-V devices.
At least with version 1.0, the expectation is that we’re talking about a fully-fledged, usable OS. It is based on Linux Kernel 6.1 and offers an English language install in addition to Chinese-based options. However, The Register shrugs off the claim that this is a properly “independent” OS. That outlet calls it merely an “Ubuntu remix” because it uses a variant of the GNU Compiler Collection that contains an Ubuntu flag, suggesting its origin. The name “ubuntu” also appears in the config files, they note.
A simple installation, complete with familiar apps
It’s FOSS News tested out the OS and the installation process, which is also quite reminiscent of Ubuntu. The UKUI (Ultimate Kylin User Interface, see image at top) has taken inspiration from another UI: Windows 11. The colours and Start function found here have nothing revolutionary to offer at first glance. Multitasking resembles Windows, too, as do the Notification Center and the Peony File Manager.
Installation completes with a set of mostly familiar applications. For example, Mozilla Firefox is the default browser, WPS Office provides the counterpart to Microsoft 365, and users are instantly equipped with Vim Text Editor. There’s also a generic video player and weather app. WPS Office happens to actually be of Chinese origin, but Vim was built by the Dutchman Bram Moolenaar. Thus, once again, the all-Chinese nature of the OS proves to be relatively easy to dismiss.
In other words, we’re talking about a Linux distro that has a far-reaching Chinese influence, but isn’t fundamentally independent thanks to its use of foreign apps. The international origin of much of the programming code makes the claim of independence that Reuters parrots a tough to take at face value. In the grand scheme of things, OpenKylin doesn’t seem to be born from antagonism. However, we do often see such reporting quickly pigeonholed in the media. For example, almost every European move in the world of chip production falls into the “Chip War” category at Bloomberg. China is cast as the great enemy and every action carried out there in the area of interest is also almost described as an act of war. This makes the players in question two-dimensional actors with highly simplified goals. OpenLykin shouldn’t have been repeated verbatim in this claim uncritically, as it furthers the narrative that it was designed in opposition to all things western. It’s not, and the code it uses is proof of that.
The nature of China’s state interference in the software field is tricky to define. This is even more so when talking about open source, although we can always see the end result of it by looking at the source code. In any case, the developers speak of a community of 4,000 voluntary participants at OpenKylin. At the same time, it is also known that the Chinese state is urging the tech industry to eliminate dependence on the US. We cannot easily get an understand the extent to which these two facts are connected. What is clear, however, is that this move towards independence will not happen overnight. By setting up a Linux distro, more and more self-reliance can be cultivated within it in the future. In other words, it makes sense to view the break with the U.S. as a long-term goal, with Windows being the first to be pushed aside.
This vision is also reflected in the statements made by Chinese academic Ni Guangnan in conversation with Global Times. He argues that China’s digital economy is gradually moving toward a new phase of taking on applications and development at scale itself. The end goal: to be less dependent on the West. About the new OS, he said, “The release of OpenKylin 1.0 indicated that domestic OS ecology has reached a new height. It also witnessed our unremitting innovation in the Linux ecology.”
Thus we see another perspective of the self-reliance that China aspires to. This is not just about circumventing export restrictions that may also come into play with regard to software on top of semiconductor development. In addition, the commitment to Linux development is authentic if the source code remains publicly available.
According to the project, the userbase consists of nearly 900,000 users, which in a country of more than 1.4 billion people is a drop in the ocean. OpenKylin will still have to gain considerable popularity before it can pass as a Windows competitor. That is where China’s OS landscape will be headed as far as OpenKylin is concerned, because the local open-source community is unhappy about the risks to national security allegedly associated with Windows use.
Indeed, anyone who reads the Chinese concerns surrounding Windows sees the same rhetoric we read in the West about Huawei. Public sources there are just as adamant about the alleged security and privacy dangers of Windows as we are about these concerns among Chinese tech companies. This is not to equate the two sides: China, for example, has proven time and again to use IP theft to develop its own technology, not to mention the role the government in China plays when compared to democratic countries in the West.
The future will tell how things go with OpenKylin in particular and Chinese OS use in general. Should international relations get strained even further, we can at least spot the first step toward self-reliance.