Asia Perspective: The Move to Open Software


Asia Pacific has been traditionally a technology follower rather than an inventor. Although pockets of innovation and invention appear in more developed locations such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, China PRC, and Singapore, the demands for mainstream office productivity and operating system software have not been met by such pockets of brilliance. The technology stalwarts such as Microsoft, IBM, and Sun Microsystems generally control much of the desktop, as well as the server space. This trend is changing, in Asia Pacific and elsewhere.

The Changing of the Tide

On September 23, 2003, Japan and South Korea began discussing with China joining hands in promoting the use of Linux as an alternative to Microsoft Windows. China had earlier developed its “Red Flag Linux” with double-byte simplified Chinese as the operating environment, endorsed by the Beijing government as the alternative to Windows. Japan has also earmarked US$8.6 million for the Asia-centric Linux project, to help Linux become better able to serve double-byte Asian languages.

Microsoft spokesperson Mark Martin said to Yuri Kakeyama of the Associated Press, that “consumers and market forces, not government preferences, should determine software selection and development.” Obviously, Martin does not quite understand Asian operating environments, where the governments not only drive preferences, but also many endorsement and funding projects, which then create demand in the consumer and market segments. The U.S. mentality tends to be one of individualism, while the Asian mentality tends to be driven by a top-down, authoritarian, or paternalistic approach.

And Asia is not alone in its move toward open software. Germany, France, and other European countries have long been wary of dependence on the U.S. made Microsoft Windows, especially in their deployment of government systems. On September 26, 2003, a state official from the state of Massachusetts, U.S.A., announced the decision to adopt a broad-based strategy of moving its computer systems towards open standards, including Linux.

Software Issues for Asia Pacific

There are other factors in Asia’s move to open-source software. Asia Pacific has surpassed America in the adoption of cell phones and wireless technology. Coupled with the diverse cultural and linguistic differences in Asia Pacific not governed by a standardized working language (such as English), Asia technology players have begun to localize software for their domestic markets.

Second, consumerism and per capita income in Asia Pacific lags behind that of America. This means the standardized pricing of U.S. made software (often MORE expensive here than in the U.S.A.), has exacerbated the difficulty for individual users, educational institutions, and even commercial enterprises and government agencies to purchase software in units as well as in volume. This, in turn, gave rise to software piracy in Asia, which has traditionally been more rampant than in some other domains. It was not unknown previously to find US$2 copies of mainstream software such as Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office on the streets of some Asian cities.

More recently, the governments have become diligent in sweeping away such piracy practices. However, to take away one’s ability to use software by law enforcement without offering a sensible alternative will create unrest. Therefore, the initiatives by regional governments in Japan, South Korea, China PRC, and even Singapore, to look more closely at open source software, is borne out of necessity.

The Need for Transparency

There is yet another reason behind this move. Traditional commercial software made in the USA is often “black box” software, which means the source code is unknown to users. Asian governments are uncomfortable with the lack of transparency in such software products, especially when such software often fall prey to security breaches, as shown in the continuous incidents surrounding some of Microsoft’s products.

Open source software, since its source code is open and available to all, does not suffer from this suspicion from the Asian governments. Because of the nature of open source software, these governments are also free to customize the software to their own needs, including that of localization, as well as adding functionality unique to their requirements, simply by working with in-house or outsourced developers.


There will always be ready adopters of commercial solutions developed by giants such as Microsoft, but there will also be an increasing number of adopters who would choose the alternative open source software. At the end of the day, what matters most is if your organization can benefit from the use of the software.

By Seamus Phan

Based in Singapore, Seamus Phan is
one of Asia’s leading thinkers and practitioners
in business leadership, Internet security, and marketing.