sunsetvietnam.jpgSun Microsystems, the US computer firm, has signed a deal with Beijing Redflag Chinese 2000, a local software house, to boost the appeal of the OpenOffice suite of office software in China.

OpenOffice is an open source rival to Microsoft's Office suite, which is a de facto standard in the western business world. But Office has yet to get that sort of traction in China and other emerging markets where the open source movement has long had ambitions to topple Microsoft's dominance.

The deal means that Beijing Redflag, which is a subsidiary of the Chinese Academy of Arts and Sciences, will contribute 50 engineers to the project to work on integrating new features in the Chinese localisation.

Sun originally donated the OpenOffice code to the open source community and it has its own low-cost StarOffice implementation. But neither OpenOffice or StarOffice has emerged as realistic alternatives to Microsoft's software, at least not in the business market.

In theory, open source software could do well in China, not least because of the government's oft-expressed desire to replace the many pirated copies of Microsoft software installed in government offices with legitimate alternatives.

China has funded a number of open source initiatives and research projects, and a few years back, it issued a policy directives requiring government ministries to only use home-grown software in a blatant attempt bid to put Microsoft. at a disadvantage in China.

One such would-be Office challenger is EIOffice, from China's Evermore Software, which was launched three years ago in English, Japanese and Chinese (traditional and simplified). While Java-based EIOffice has been praised by China's ministry of science & technology, the English version, which costs $149, has so far had negligible impact in the west.

China's desire to be different in the technology business has to be balanced against the even stronger desire for China to play a key role in tomorrow's information-based global economy, which is going to be difficult its businesses are running an eclectic mix of home-grown commercial software and little-known open source alternatives.

In addition, China's software houses know that if they are to get closer to the west, then they have to use mainstream western technologies — see this story on Ufida's tie-up with IBM, for example.

That doesn't exclude open source, of course, as most of current wave of innovation in the IT industry is occurring around open source technologies. But it does mean that if a client sends you a PowerPoint file, you are probably going to use Microsoft Office rather than EIOffice or OpenOffice to read it.

For a few years, EngagingChina persisted in the belief that it could go without Microsoft Office and tried various open source alternatives to open and view Microsoft files sent by contacts and colleagues. But eventually we threw in the towel, as the proprietary features that Microsoft builds into its programs makes converting the files a hit-and-miss business.

And let's not forget the huge effort that Microsoft is now putting into forging closer links with China. History shows it is not a good idea to go against Bill Gates.

For a more upbeat appraisal on open source's prospects in China, check out this coverage of the China Open Source Software Summit, held last month in Beijing.

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