April 8 marked the end of Microsoft's support to Windows XP. After releasing its last two official patches, Microsoft stopped patching security holes in its 12-year-old operating system. This leaves Windows XP users open to cyber attacks, which will neither be investigated nor fixed.
The news is shocking, to say the least, for the more than 200 million Windows XP users in China. Although the expiry of Windows XP is not necessarily a deadly blow to Chinese users, as many media outlets say, the unilateral termination of the service is improper and infringes upon the rights of legal Windows XP users.
Several domestic antivirus software makers have said they will continue providing support to computers that use XP, even though Microsoft has announced that antivirus software may not be very effective without a continuously updated operating system. Microsoft is right, but in reality only a few viruses can breach antivirus protection shields. The "panda burning incense" which invaded many computers in January 2007 is a rare example of an all-powerful virus.
Microsoft has acted irresponsibly by withdrawing support to XP and leaving users to fend for themselves, which will damage the IT giant's image. Microsoft has cited the terms and conditions agreed by XP users to claim that it reserved the right to end the service. But the terms and conditions were framed by the IT giant without consulting the consumers. No wonder, in July last year, Guo Li, a Windows XP user in Zhengzhou, Henan province, won an eight-year-long case against Microsoft and got four articles in the users' agreement invalidated because they enabled it to avoid responsibilities.
For many people, the "death" of Windows XP is not only a warning against Chinese people's over-reliance on US information technology, but also a wake-up call to the Chinese IT industry to design and promote its own software.
Fortunately, cyber security is not a problem for government and military departments, and some enterprises because they store their confidential information in computers that are not connected to the Internet despite operating on XP. Physical separation, as it is called, is beyond the crossing ability of hackers.
The "black episode" of 2008, in which Microsoft turned the monitor screens of unverified XP users black to protect its copyright, must be fresh in many people's minds. Two years earlier, the US Department of Homeland Security had warned US computer users that the Windows system might have a "backdoor" that allowed Microsoft to intrude users' computers. The IT giant denied it but later it was confirmed that Windows Phone 7, its operating system for smartphones, also has a backdoor. These incidents show how incisive is the technology that Microsoft uses.
China should therefore, realise the disadvantages of being over-dependent on foreign operating systems. China's "physical separation" arrangement may be effective against intrusion, but it causes inconvenience by blocking necessary software updates on computers.
China has no computer operating system of its own with full intellectual property rights. Its operating systems, like Red Flag Linux, have been developed on open-source cores offered by foreign software makers that come with set rules. The same applies to other intelligent terminals, too. China is the world's biggest producer of intelligent terminals like smartphones, tablets, and even smart TV sets and wearable intelligent devices. But most of them run on one of the three operating systems: iOS of Apple, Windows of Microsoft, and Android of Google.
In a recent interview, Ni Guangnan, an academic with the China Academy of Engineering, talked about two negatives of China's intelligent terminal production: first, China gets a very small share of the profits for lack of IPR, and, second, security of its user data cannot be guaranteed because of the foreign operating systems. But China is in a long way from developing a totally new operating system, which needs an efficient and reliable core, large numbers of drivers, and numerous changes to suit the advancement in hardware. In fact, the cost may be too high for China's IT industry to afford.
Besides, even if China succeeded in developing an advanced operating system, it might end up being used mostly by government agencies rather than by individuals.
A commercially successful operating system needs the support of compatible hardware. Only if a user can conveniently run his/her software on a reliable computer can he/she choose the operating system. The global monopoly of Windows, which lasted decades, has much to do with the popularisation of PCs; iOS also owes its rise over the past few years to the revolutionary Apple products such as iPad, iPhone and Macbook. Therefore, it won't be easy for China to develop a completely new operating system and compete for a big slice of the market, especially because it has to master the application of IT as well as develop a foolproof marketing strategy.
Although earlier this year the Chinese Academy of Sciences said it had developed a new system for smartphones, PCs and tablets, its painstaking efforts show how difficult it is to challenge the three global IT giants.
But China has to ease, if not totally end, its reliance on foreign operating systems by developing one indigenously even if it cannot immediately compete for a share of the global market.