The People’s Republic of China is what you’d call a technological powerhouse. Most of our electronics and gadgets are built in the sprawling factories of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, with their thousands of workers diligently working around the clock to brings us new toys to buy. But while China’s well known for its manufacturing dominance, it’s less well regarded when it comes to the conceptualization and imagination of products. That tends to happen in Silicon Valley, or Dublin, or London, or any other creative tech hub.
But China does come up with a lot of cool stuff. It’s just that it overwhelmingly tends to be geared for their domestic market, so we never hear about it. Take Ubuntu Kylin, for example. This is a heavily customized spin of Ubuntu Linux, built by the PRC’s government, aimed at Chinese users.
Although the much-fabled “Year of the Linux Desktop” has yet to arrived in the West, it’s a different story in China. Ubuntu Kylin comes pre-installed on 40% of all new Dell Machines.
It’s not rare for governments to create their own (usually Linux-based) alternatives to Windows. North Korea has one. The city of Munich has one. The Spanish autonomous region of Extramadura has one. The Cuban government has been working on theirs since 2009. The only difference is that China’s is actually pretty good.
I downloaded an ISO, fired up Virtualbox, and spent a day putting it through its paces. Here’s what I found.
Ni Hao, Ubuntu Kylin
Ubuntu Kylin can be downloaded straight from the Ubuntu website, as you would any other officially endorsed Ubuntu derivative. Here, you’ll see it markets itself as being a custom spin of Ubuntu, built with the Chinese market in mind. But the ties to China’s government are kept very quiet.
Once I downloaded a disk image, I set myself up a virtual machine (VM) configured with 4GB of RAM, 64MB of virtual memory, 3D acceleration enabled, and a 16GB dynamically expanding virtual hard drive. Austere specs, certainly, but more than enough for what amounts to a customized spin of Ubuntu.
The Installation Process
Ubuntu Kylin boots straight into Chinese. Hardly surprising given the target audience. But you can just as easily switch into English, or any other language Ubuntu has a translation for. Much of what you’ll see is the default Ubuntu schtick, but where there are changes made specifically for this version, the text has been translated into English. And quite well, I might add. I’ve seen some mistranslated Chinese-to-English howlers in my time, but everything looked and read quite nicely.
Installing Kylin should feel very familiar. It’s just a simple matter of creating your user account, setting your time zone, and then pressing “Continue” a few times.
Look And Feel
The default windowing environment for Ubuntu Kylin is stock Unity Shell. Not the most popular one, certainly, but I don’t mind it. Compared to the subdued MATE interface, it pops and glistens. I rather liked the wallpaper too, although that’s just a matter of personal preference.
Despite setting up Ubuntu Kylin to use English, there were a few things that were in Chinese on the homescreen. One folder, and a dialog I wasn’t able to decipher. I hope it wasn’t saying anything important.
In terms of aesthetics, Kylin is pure Ubuntu. But there are some radical changes in terms of the bundled software. Namely, it comes with a completely redesigned software center, and a personal assistant package called Youker.
The Software Center
Kylin’s Ubuntu foundations allow you to download applications through the command line, and add your own repositories. But it also comes with a GUI package manager that’s radically different.
Firstly, it’s deeply customized for the Chinese market, and heavily promotes apps that are popular in that region. For example, it includes Kingsoft’s WPS Office, which has challenged Microsoft Office’s hegemony in the Middle Kingdom in recent years. It also looks much, much nicer than the stock Ubuntu software center.
More interestingly, it also suggests Linux alternatives to popular Windows applications. It’s no secret China’s desperate to emancipate itself from American-built technology, especially after the Snowden bombshell in 2013. At a government level, they’re accomplishing this by simply not buying American hardware and software. In February earlier this year, China banned government departments from procuring Apple and Cisco products.
But when it comes to consumers, they’re accomplishing this by building products that are easy to use, and hold the consumer’s hand through the upgrade process. What better way than to suggest analogs of software they’re already familiar with?
Users of Internet Explorer are told to install Chromium, while users of Microsoft Office are instructed to switch to the aforementioned WPS Office.
Kouker Personal Assistant
This was weird.
Youker markets itself as a personal assistant. It’s even in the name. At first, I had imagined a Chinese alternative for Cortana, which would have been really cool to see. But it was nothing like that.
Rather, it was a bundle of randomly disparate system utilities, like a file manager, webcam application, and some configuration utilities. In retrospect, I can imagine how these would be useful, but I can’t deny I was a bit disappointed.
Ubuntu Kylin ships with Firefox and Chromium. Unusual, since most Linux distributions ship with either one, or the other.
I tried Firefox. There were few customizations made, save for the fact that the default page was Sogou.com, which is essentially China’s analog of MSN. Sougou also makes a Pinyin text input tool, available separately from Ubuntu Kylin, as well as a browser that includes both Chrome’s Webkit and Internet Explorer’s Trident rendering agents.
China’s a country notorious for their tight-fisted control of the Internet. But I found that I was able to use the Internet as I would any other distribution. There was no filtering, meaning I could read up on Fallun Gong and Tianamen Square to my heart’s content.
I really enjoyed my time with Ubuntu Kylin. The Chinese Government have gone to great extents to making this a compelling, viable alternative to Windows.
Already, Kylin Linux has been a remarkable success. It’s shipping on a startling number of PCs in China, and feels set to overtake Windows very, very soon. But where they’ve succeeded. others have failed. Dismally.
It’s worth noting that there’s another government-sponsored Linux distro with “Kylin” in the name. NeoKylin has been in development for the past few years, and already has a large following in China. But whereas UbuntuKylin looks like mainstream Ubuntu, NeoKylin is built to closely resemble Windows XP.
Both North Korea and Cuba have their own Linux distros. But in their own countries, they simply haven’t taken off due to the prevalence of pirated copies of Windows, or the dismally low penetration of computers in those parts of the world.
Likewise, since 2006, the government of Munich have slowly migrated their IT infrastructure from Windows to Linux. But periodically, they’ve considered going back to Windows, due to user unfamiliarity and compatibility problems, issues that have stopped national and local government departments in the UK from even getting started.
The reason why Kylin Linux is such a success is simple. It’s good. It’s available. And it’s designed to hold users’ hands as they migrate from Windows. This formula is simple. Obvious, even. But it works.
You can download a Kylin Linux ISO here. Why don’t you give it a try and let me know how you found it in the comments below.