Hope, Caution Coexist at Hong Kong LinuxWorld

Vendors and users here at LinuxWorld Conference & Expo Hong Kong 2000 this week said the free, open-source operating system might be just what Asia's enterprises and software industries need -- while at the same time cautioning that it may still be too early to bet big.

The conference, running here this week Thursday through Saturday at the Hong Kong Conference and Exhibition Centre, on its first day drew big crowds that were still checking out vendor booths after the official closing time of 5 p.m.

Software and hardware companies, including Intel, IBM, Oracle, Compaq Computer and others, came prepared with pledges of enthusiastic support for Linux. Participants and attendees acknowledged the shortcomings of the OS, with even one of its top evangelists saying it isn't ready for life-and-death applications, but said they see a huge potential for it in Asia over the next few years.

Fresh in the minds of many were recent reports of the Chinese government's official endorsement of Linux, as well as widespread adoption of the OS in the world's most populous country. Vendor TurboLinux, meanwhile, last week claimed that its version of Linux is now the best-selling OS in China.

A part-time IS manager for a small Hong Kong trading company came to stay ahead of the curve.

"I've heard Linux is very common in China, so if this is a big trend, I want to find out more about it," said Eric Chau, commercial manager at Wathne International. Most of the company's suppliers are in China, he said.

Chau also believes his company might be able to save money on both software licenses and hardware by adopting Linux, as there is no licensing fee and it requires less memory and processing power than some other operating systems. But he said changing Wathne's current Microsoft Windows 98 clients and NT servers might be a daunting task just because Linux is so unfamiliar to most users.

"I'm the only one there who knows anything about it," Chau said.

An executive of brokerage Salomon Smith Barney Hong Kong said his company is already performing benchmark tests on Linux and may use it to run applications that are not mission-critical. He said it could save money over the company's current solution, Sun workstations running Solaris.

"By nine to 12 months from now, Linux should be up to speed," said Steven Chau (no relation), assistant vice president of the Business Technology Organisation at Salomon Smith Barney Hong Kong.

The company doesn't want to be a follower if competitors adopt a cost-saving system, he acknowledged.

"We need to get moving, because pretty soon there won't be just Solaris and Windows NT, there will be Linux, too," Chau said.

Conference speakers yesterday hit on three themes in touting Linux for the Asia-Pacific market: low cost, local control of code, and a good fit for small Internet access devices.

In a taped interview at the conference's opening session, Linux creator Linus Torvalds said the OS has particular significance for developing countries in Asia.

"Linux brings something Asia has lacked, which is control over their own OS," Torvalds said. "Linux lets people do what they want to do without having to ask permission."

A free OS like Linux may be ideal for Asia's many small businesses, said Jeremy Burton, a vice president in Oracle's Worldwide Marketing Division. Oracle is offering free developer licenses for its Oracle 8i software for Linux, as well as for Windows NT and Unix.

"In some of the less developed countries, people want to use the best software but can't buy it or even find someone to give it to them," Burton said, in an interview following his keynote speech.

"It tends to be the smaller companies that are more resource-constrained that are turning to Linux," he added.

Others said the technology environment in China is well suited to Linux use and development.

The relative lack of legacy systems in China creates a great opportunity, Cliff Miller, president and chief executive officer of TurboLinux, told the conference.

"I believe China can leapfrog into the Linux world without the messiness of other markets," where Windows is more deeply entrenched, Miller said.

Even the allegedly widespread practice of software pirating can help to propagate Linux on the Mainland, he added.

"Since Linux is open source, we want you to copy the software," Miller said.

A Compaq executive who spoke at the conference believed Chinese companies are actually better equipped than businesses elsewhere to adapt Linux to their own purposes.

"IT departments are huge there," said Larry Fox, a vice president in Compaq's Greater China Division. "Their ability to take an open-source OS and adapt it to their needs is probably greater just because they have the technical people there to do it."

One developer attending the conference pointed to what could be a major use for Linux in Asia.

Alex Leung, a software engineer for Hong Kong-based We Software Ltd., said his company is considering using Linux as an embedded OS in software for set-top boxes. In the huge volumes it would produce under contract to a set-top box maker, the lack of a licensing fee could represent big savings, Leung said.

Such simple, low-cost devices are expected to be the path to Internet access for millions of Chinese.

Jon "Maddog" Hall, executive director of Linux International, a nonprofit vendor group, also said he sees a big market for embedded Linux. The modular design of the OS allows developers to tailor a very small kernel for specialized uses, he said.

"If it's something you're going to produce 10 million times, if you pay even 10 cents for the OS, that's (US) $1 million," Hall said.

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