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China's homegrown OS is doomed to failure

Android's momentum will be hard to slow, even if Google itself is sidelined, and the new COS is too late and too parochial


Published: 20 January, 2014


China has a long history of trying to create its own technology platforms and reduce its reliance on the inventions, and royalties, of the west. Until recently, none had gained traction outside the country itself and many failed even there, despite the best efforts of government agencies - WAPI, TD-SCDMA and others come to mind. But the growth of China as a hi-tech user base is changing all that. Now the world's largest smartphone market, its preferences cannot be ignored, as seen in the international uptake of TD-LTE, initially a heavily China-backed standard. Will the same apply to the latest homegrown mobile technology, the new COS operating system?

Probably not. One reason for the success of TD-LTE is that, while it has been spearheaded by China, it is the result of international development and has gone through global standards bodies - in contrast, for instance, with WAPI, the Wi-Fi overlay which was licensed only to a few Chinese vendors. COS (China Operating System) appears Android-like, but claims to be all-Chinese.

That means it should will avoid the problem encountered by another OS of Chinese origin, Alibaba's Aliyun. Google came down hard on that one, claiming it used Android technologies and therefore should be subject to the Open Handset Alliance's rules. COS, it is claimed, not only avoids non-Chinese platforms, but is more secure than Android or iOS. However, it also means it will be starting from scratch in a market where Android is already popular.

The strains between Google and the Chinese authorities mean its search engine and other key services are far less visible than in other countries, but there are still plenty of Android variants, some created by local operators and web players and largely excising the Google user experience. It is hard to see what COS will offer to outdo these, except - if its security claims are true - in some enterprise markets. It will also face competition from other localized platforms with far more commercially driven vendors behind them, such as Baidu's Cloud OS.

COS was unveiled last week by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Shanghai-based Liantong Network Communications Technology. According to The New York Times, it is "designed for use on many devices including smartphones and personal computers" and was called "a strategic product for national security", being created partly in response to the revelations about US surveillance - a point emphasized heavily given the US's hostility to buying Huawei products, supposedly on national security grounds.

Liantong's deputy general manager Chen Feili said the OS would run across multiple devices including handsets and PCs - the looming end of Microsoft support for Windows XP was another motivator to develop the software - and that the end goal is to make COS China's primary platform. It supports Java and HTML5 in order to tap into a significant base of applications, and enable developers to write once and run across many screens.

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