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China's IT: an inside outsider's view

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Letter We had a letter from a man identifying himself only as Dr. John who teaches at a University in China. What he had to say about the Eastern technology revolution is something of an eye opener:

Over the past 4 years, I have had a chance to see the IT side of China in a unique way. Living and working here in the Middle Kingdom, being everything from a dialup user - hoping to get even an Internet email page - to managing a small Linux cluster in support of a research project. Now back to a LAN user on a university network.

The pace of growth here in China is breathtaking. New buildings are being erected faster than the crew of men with flexible bamboo-handled sledge hammers can knock them down. The metropolitan landscape changes constantly. The skyline, even here in Ningbo, is in constant flux. The IT landscape equates to something like the mid-nineties. Something like, only a lot different.

More than 80 million computer users. Most all of them first generation users. This means that there are over 80 million computer users that are using computers for the first time. The 80 million number includes net admins and net security folks that never touched a computer up until a few months or couple of years ago. Whew.

I have made it a policy to no longer accept disks from my students. An informal survey indicates that 100% are infected by some virus, many of which are thought in the West to be extinct. In China, every virus you can imagine is still alive and well. At least if they send assignments via email, I feel like I stand a chance to quash whatever virus is included before it gets onto my system.

Here at my university, the network is at a crawl. Port monitoring is a fright. Literally hundreds of port scans every hour, looking for unsecured machines, of which there are so very very many.

Why are there so many computers that are open to attack? Many of you in the West have no idea what the computing environment is like here.

As an example, I recently upgraded my and my wife's home computers to Windows XP Professional. I made this move for a couple of reasons. First was because I cannot read simplified Chinese as well as I would like, and my wife reads traditional Chinese much faster than simplified. Windows XP comes with an English-language and a traditional Chinese (among many others) interface. Second, although my outside network is run by China Telecom (CT), which runs mostly on Linux boxes, there is no Linux login to be had for the campus LAN. I cannot get a fixed IP on campus.

So, thinking I was doing the "Right Thing," I went down to the local Computer Supermarket and bought two copies of new, shrink-wrapped Windows XP Pro. Aha! The copies I bought have all the glistening anti-piracy labels. An holographic imprint. Heck, they even include the toll-free numbers to call if you think you might have a bogus copy of their software.

Both copies had the same Product Activation Key code. Bogus keys that will not allow updates, except for the critical security sort. Fair enough. I got a crap copy and it was my fault for thinking it was too good to be true.

I called around and found one MS retailer in Shanghai that would sell me a copy of XP Pro for about 2,000 Yuan. No big deal for me, but almost all Chinese do not make that much in two year's working. There is no place in Ningbo (where I now live) to buy legit MS software, even if I wanted to.

Most all of my Chinese friends that have computers never even try to upgrade their bogus MS systems. If they have AV software, it comes from the same computer supermarket, and they are not allowed to update, but this is no worry for them. They don't even try. The Internet is slow? Of course, it is supposed to be slow; at least that is the common thinking here..

If I could get CT to give me a Linux logon app, there would be no worries for me. The last uni in China gave me a fixed IP, and a logon app was no issue. Windows XP was no issue. Linux worked on our server group, although everything was slowed to a snail's pace by all the crap out there on the evil, unprotected net, inside the uni and out.

Spam zombies. It is not a deliberate part of Chinese IT, but something that must happen. 80 million first-time users. No AV. No MS updates. No information in their language about what to do. No source for legit MS software.

Here there seems to be a perfect platform for Linux. MS stuff is way too expensive, and people buy MS thinking it is the Right Thing. Yet it is pirated and has minimal security for them. The first time they try to get SP1 or SP2 fopr XP, they get a message about the Security Key, so they quit trying, thinking the software is broken.

Is the solution free upgrades for pirated MS software? No, of course not. The Beast still needs to make its $$$. Is the solution a broken version of Windows for Asians? No, of course not. The Chinese are not stupid.

Maybe if the net folks here realize that their own people can do Linux, there may be hope.

Think about it. If your next copy of Windows cost you one year's salary, would you switch to open-source?

Dr. John ®

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