The long march of Linux in Asia

Von Steven Schwankert

In the 1930s, a ragtag band of ideologues trudged a tortuous 6,000 mile route through northern China?s dusty plains. At the time, many dismissed these guerrillas as fanatical military pretenders. But the survivors of what?s now known as ?The Long March? became the new governing regime in Beijing a mere decade later.

In recent years, an unarmed but bitter struggle has emerged within Asian IT. It follows the classic pattern of such conflicts: A small group becomes dissatisfied with the status quo and is quickly labeled as fanatical, fringe and extremist.

Isolated and ignored, the group?s ideology slowly spreads as displeasure with the status quo grows. Eventually, it reaches critical mass -- a tipping point that makes it a force to be reckoned with. This is now happening in Asia with an operating system whose emblem -- a slumping penguin -- looks more a computer game icon than an IT brand logo.

When Linux first arrived in the region in the late 1990s, the Grouch wasn?t impressed. Yeah, great idea: a tinkerer?s code that you have to download and install from scratch. Few applications exist, oh and by the way, you can?t run any of the apps you already own. Fantastic! What?s that Finnish guy?s name again?

Even in 2001 when the Chinese government -- in an expression of both paranoia and economic independence -- ordered various government departments to defenestrate Microsoft Windows boxes and replace them with Linux-based systems, no one took it too seriously. At the time, there weren?t enough qualified Linux technicians in China to migrate even part of the government?s systems to open source.

The rhetoric of Linux forces wasn?t exactly user-friendly either. ?Use free software to reduce costs and save money!?, cried the Linuxtistas. ?We hate Microsoft! And organized religion! And organized crime! But we love Star Trek!!? As early Linux players like Red Hat and TurboLinux began to go public (to the yawns of Wall Street), the early consensus was simple: these guys aren?t for real.

Big IT names like Oracle?s Larry Ellison and Sun?s Scott

?Why-Hasn?t-The-Board-Canned-Me-Yet?? McNealy then began to jump on the Linux bandwagon, attempting to lead their old foe Microsoft into a software Stalingrad.

But the market leader was clearly getting nervous. One source familiar with Microsoft operations described it as ?a company at war with itself.? CEO Steve Ballmer?s likened Linux to communism in a statement in July 2000 which sounded like the desperate pronouncement of a general who?s just read a pessimistic report from the front lines.

It?s not Microsoft?s foes that continue to open new fronts: it is Mister Softy itself that seems to be looking east and west to create new enemies. Last month, Ballmer decided to pick a fight with iPod users, saying that the most common musical format found on Apple?s revolutionary MP3 player is ?stolen.? The end result was a swift backpedaling when he found over five million songs were sold legally by Apple, and that many of the users he was describing were carrying the Windows version of the iPod. But the pattern of seeking conflict rather cooperation on all fronts doesn?t seem to have changed.

The gaps in the armor are showing. While Ballmer shouts to the rafters that Linux couldn?t possibly be secure, Windows security flaws continue to hog headlines. Should Microsoft be on the offensive when its defenses seem so weak?

Ballmer?s crusade against Linux is a mistake. Every time he denounces the open source movement, its profile rises. One more person says, ?What is this Linux thing about anyway, and why does Microsoft seem so worried??

Ballmer only need look back at the way Apple took on IBM to see where this is going. Apple positioned itself as cool, hip, and affordable, a company that cared about the end-user. Buttoned-down IBM, with its dark-suit dress code, looked as monolithic and immobile as its mainframes. Big, established companies are easy to harass and slow to respond effectively to such tactics. The penguin-suited guerrillas know this.

This is a classic insurgent situation. It?s the public?s increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo, not necessarily the strength of the dissenters? argument or message, which begins to change minds. The public, including the Asian public, which once clung to Windows as the one and only operating system, no longer sees the ruling class as invincible, or the rebels as idealists.

Ask a local design firm to whip up a Web site for you, and chances are it will be served with open-source software, and likely to employ a user-friendly Linux-based content management system. That simply wasn?t the case five years ago.

The Grouch predicts that the Linux insurgency will topple Ballmer as Microsoft CEO within the next five years. Bill Gates, at least temporarily, will steer the S.S. Microsoft once again. In the meantime, the open source movement and its quasi-brand banner of Linux will continue its march towards greater market share.