China retires last Windows desktops for homegrown Linux distro

To cut foreign dependencies, China pursues an open platform to accelerate the development of home-grown desktop computing.
5 July 2022

The end of Windows in China is creeping closer. All eyes is on Kylin Linux. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)

  • Government services in China have been ordered to replace the final 20% of Windows installs by the end of this year. Kylin Linux is gaining prominence.
  • China continues to seek an independent OS and Kylin Linux isn’t the sole player in this field.
  • Linux-based desktop OSes, (including China’s homegrown systems) retain a small albeit stable market share worldwide.
  • Microsoft Windows still leads the Chinese and global desktop market with 85% and 74% shares respectively.

Google search ‘Microsoft in China’ and you will find news from as far back as 2003, revolving around the American giant’s endless tussle in the world’s most populous country. What started as piracy conundrum for Redmond eventually morphed into censorship debates and today, massive privacy concerns and international politics. Microsoft has never had it easy in the country – but frankly speaking, which foreign companies have?

In February 2020, the Chinese government, in a major blow to Microsoft, announced that it will be replacing all PCs that run Windows by the end of this year alongside moves to replace Western hardware with Chinese native kit – Lenovo springs foremost to mind. For the OS, what alternatives is the government pursuing? A homegrown Linux distro has always been on the cards, primary candidates including Kylin Linux. The moves are part of the international trade games the country is playing with the West, but especially with the US, in moves that could be interpreted as retaliation for the country banning all China-made hardware imports.

A screenshot of one of Kylinsoft’s desktop operating systems. Photo: Handout

The phase out started with Chinese government services being ordered to replace 30% of Windows PCs by the end of 2020, a further 50% in 2021 and the final 20% by the end of this year. According to China Securities, as reported here [paywall], it will mean that around 20 to 30 million PCs will end up being replaced.

Statistically speaking, even with some homegrown operating systems already available in the market, it appears that no Chinese OS is yet rivaling Microsoft Windows, which leads the market with an 85% share in mainland China. Globally, Windows remains the dominant desktop operating system with a market share of just under 74% as of December last year. Apple’s MacOS holds around 15% of desktop OS installs, found on its best-selling iMacs and MacBooks.

In China, what will Kylin Linux do?

Developed by the National University of Defense Technology of the People’s Liberation Army and launched over two decades ago in 2001, Kylin is based on a BSD kernel (as is Apple’s OS). It was intended for use in government and military offices, where Chinese authorities have repeatedly attempted to eliminate foreign operating systems.

By 2010, the operating system made the switch to the Linux kernel, and in 2014 an Ubuntu-based version of the OS was introduced after Canonical reached an agreement with Chinese authorities to develop the software. The National University of Defense Technology of the People’s Liberation Army has been licensing Kylinsoft for commercial applications since 2014.

In the most recent development, China created an open platform to accelerate the development of the homegrown OS, known as the openKylin project. openKylin is focused on version planning, platform development, and establishing a community charter. The goal is to use the open source platform to help unseat Windows and macOS in the country.


openKylin, made its debut on June 24 2022. Photo Courtesy of China Electronics Corporation

To date, the project has garnered support from nearly two dozen Chinese firms and institutions, including China’s Advanced Operating System Innovation Center. Kylinsoft, a subsidiary of state-owned China Electronics Corp,  joined forces a couple of weeks ago with more than ten Chinese entities, including the National Industrial Information Security Development Research Center, to drive the open-source initiatives across a broader community of users, developers and stakeholders.

It remains to be seen how soon Kylin OS will become mainstream but as of the time of writing, Windows still holds a majority share in the local market. Linux-based OSes, which include most of China’s home-grown systems, retain a small but stable market share, according to South China Morning Post.

Separately, China also runs its own GitHub alternative, Gitee, to counter the Microsoft-acquiered code hosting and versioning platform – all in its effort to cut back reliance on Western technologies.

Prior to recent moves, China’s biggest hope for replacing Windows was Red Flag Linux, created in 1999. It was built on open source Linux by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The project shut down in 2014 – apparently, due to lack of funds.