China escalates rhetoric in campaign to ban Windows 8

PCs are too expensive, foreign OS makers can steal data, government mouthpiece charges

China's state-run television today took new shots at Microsoft's Windows 8, using a two-and-a-half-minute segment on a national show to blast the operating system as a data thief.

The piece on China Central Television (CCT) was a follow-up to an announcement in May by the Central Government Procurement Center, which mandated that all "desktops, laptops and tablet PCs purchased by central state organizations must be installed with OS other than Windows 8."

At the time, the Xinhua New Agency, an official mouthpiece of the People's Republic of China government, claimed that the ban of Windows 8 was designed to avoid a repeat of XP's widespread use and its exit from support.

CCT pivoted on the official reasoning today. According to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) the segment quoted experts who argued that operating systems' makers can steal data from computers, including phone numbers and financial information.

"Whoever controls the operating system can control all the data on the computers using it," the CCT broadcast said, according to the newspaper's translation.

"It has little to do about security or privacy," countered Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Windows 8 is astronomically more secure than Windows XP. and while it's true that Windows 8, like any operating system, saves data like contacts in an address book and favorites in the browser, it's on a purely optional basis."

Nor is there any evidence that Microsoft, or any OS maker, mines that data.

Much of the CCT segment was devoted to discussion of Windows 8's high price, said Jay Chou, an analyst with IDC who speaks Mandarin. Chou summarized the broadcast for Computerworld, which is owned by IDG, the same privately-held company that operates the IDC research arm.

"Before the formal May 16 announcement came out, many in government IT purchasing were already notified to stop buying and using Windows 8," Chou said, paraphrasing the segment. "The reason given by some in these public sector agencies is the relative higher cost of buying a Windows 8 PC. The report also says there is continued hope and encouragement to use a Chinese-produced OS."

"This kind of thing goes back and forth, stews for a while, and hits an apogee where people do some chest-beating," Moorhead said. "But then people get on with business."

The Chinese government and Microsoft have crossed swords before. In 2000, Red Flag Linux, which was funded in part by the government's Ministry of Information, was mandated as the replacement for Windows 2000 on all government PCs. Tensions between China's government and Microsoft over piracy and pricing were at the root of that order.

China's state-run television took to the air Monday to blast Windows 8 as a security threat because it had been created by a foreign technology company. (Image: China Central Television.)

Moorhead believes it's much the same today.

"It's all about negotiation, negotiation up from 'free' for many people in China," Moorhead said, referring to China's reputation as a den of software pirates and echoing Chou. The government there is simply trying to pressure Microsoft into cutting it big discounts for Windows licenses, he argued.

Any effort by the Chinese government to divorce itself from Microsoft's software is probably destined for failure, Moorhead maintained, but not because there are no alternatives to Windows.

It's Office that has the stranglehold on the world. Only Office can provide the file fidelity necessary for business, Moorhead argued. "Chinese companies and organizations need to communicate with other companies and organizations around the world," he said. And Office is the lingua franca of the planet's commerce.

But he thought, assuming China continues to press the case, that it might move Microsoft to cut deals. "Microsoft is in it to win it on Office," said Moorhead. "But really, any money that Microsoft can get above zero is a win for them."

Also today, The People's Daily, the Communist Party's official organ, blasted some of the biggest Western technology companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo as pawns of the U.S. government's National Security Agency (NSA). "Foreign technology services providers such as Google and Apple can become cybersecurity threats to Chinese users," the publication said today.

Not coincidentally, Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, took to a company blog to demand changes in U.S. surveillance policies to, as he put it, "Reduce the technology trust deficit it has created." Microsoft, Google and others have repeatedly urged Washington to push reforms because their global business has been affected by foreign governments' fury over surveillance practices.

"The video did not mention security concerns and/or political tensions between the U.S. and China that may have led to this," Chou said. "The government would of course be hard-pressed to delve into that on a national news channel."

Nor did it quote anyone outside government, said Ian Lamont, a former Computerworld editor and Mandarin speaker who also pitched in with a partial translation. "They were asking how local government offices in Beijing and Jiangsu are dealing with the ban, but didn't ask companies or people, maybe because no one wanted to come out and criticize a central government directive."

According to the May missive from the Central Government Procurement Center, the Windows 8 ban does not apply to individuals or businesses, which remain free to choose the OS.

The CCT segment on Windows 8 can be viewed from the network's Chinese-language website.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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