How Microsoft crushed Linux's Chinese rebellion

The story starts with a Fortune magazine article, and ends in the second century B.C.

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 10, 2007 11:06PM (EDT)

David Kirkpatrick lays it on a bit thick in the current Fortune magazine paean to Bill Gates, "How Microsoft Conquered China." There's an obligatory couple of paragraphs near the bottom of the piece attempting to take Microsoft to task for getting in bed with the Internet-censoring Chinese Communist Party, but the gist of the story can only make Microsoft's public relations staff smile. Somehow, facing a market where piracy was rampant and the government openly pro-Linux, Microsoft turned it around. China, says Gates, will one day be Microsoft's biggest market. Yay for Windows!

For all those whining about China's cavalier attitude toward intellectual property, the key paragraph is Gates' admission that, you know what, piracy sometimes ain't all that bad.

Today Gates openly concedes that tolerating piracy turned out to be Microsoft's best long-term strategy. That's why Windows is used on an estimated 90 percent of China's 120 million PCs. "It's easier for our software to compete with Linux when there's piracy than when there's not," Gates says. "Are you kidding? You can get the real thing, and you get the same price." Indeed, in China's back alleys, Linux often costs more than Windows because it requires more disks. And Microsoft's own prices have dropped so low it now sells a $3 package of Windows and Office to students.

Longtime Salon readers can be excused for wondering why it took Microsoft so long to figure this out. Seven years ago, I edited a story in Salon that laid out pretty clearly why it was going to be hard for Linux to make real inroads against Microsoft in China.

But that story wasn't the first time Microsoft, Linux and China appeared in the pages of Salon. For historical reasons, I also feel compelled to point out a short piece I wrote in 1999 -- Linux Is Like a Chinese Peasant Uprising" -- that commented briefly on a China Youth Daily story comparing the Linux vs. Microsoft showdown to the peasant revolt led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, two laborers on the Great Wall of China who rebeled against the tyrannical rule of the first emperor of China, Qinshi Huangdi, in the second century B.C.

That 8-year-old article, which reads like a template for all those How the World Works posts that merge ancient history with contemporary globalization tidbits, was also mildly prophetic. Chen Sheng and Wu Guang died in their unsuccessful rebellion, leading to my final sentence: "Dislodging those hegemonic powers can be tricky."

Tell it to Bill Gates.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works Linux Microsoft