SAN FRANCISCO — A recently announced operating system in China could have disruptive influences felt worldwide. Developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shanghai-based Liantong Network Communications Technology, the China Operating System (COS) is designed for use in smartphones, tablets, TV set top boxes, and personal computers.
Rumors abound about which OEMs and carriers will support COS, and several analysts have cited Huawei, HTC, Mediatek, Lenovo, and ZTE as prime movers. Robert Bismuth, a Seattle-based independent consultant and former MIPS executive, said approximately 30 companies were enthusiastic during a spring 2013 meeting to discuss the COS architecture.
"Mobile carriers have no choice but to respond favorably; the Chinese government carries a lot of weight inside of China," Bismuth said. "The government is counting on creating a national identity with these devices, as they have with the space program. There's no real reason for a Chinese national person to not use these."
No mobile carrier or OEM has officially declared interest in COS -- though The New York Times quoted Liantong Network Communications' Chen Feili as saying four smartphone models already use COS -- and Bismuth said operators will have no choice but to support COS.
"It's difficult to determine who the other initial adopters might be, but I would venture to say it is likely the larger Chinese smartphone vendors that can afford to support this in one of thier product lines until they determine if it is worth the investment," Tirias Research principal analyst Jim McGregor wrote in an email exchange.
Huawei, MediaTek, and others did not return calls for comment. Officials from ARM said "it's too soon for us to offer comment at this point," while Imagination officials had no comment but said the company is "certainly interested in watching developments in China where we have a large number of customers." HTC issued a statement that it "remains focused on working with its current OS partners and we do not comment on speculation regarding other OS."
"The speculation about HTC comes from leaked reports about a Butterfly platform, and the fact that the COS user interface looks very similar to that of HTC," McGregor wrote. "However, no OEM has publicly proclaimed support for COS yet, and I would not expect it until they are ready to release a product with it."
COS has been strategically designed for national security following revelations about United States surveillance and Microsoft Windows ending further support of its XP system, Xhinhua, China's official state news agency, reported. COS can run Java applications, supports HTML 5 web applications and games, and claims to be compatible with over 100,000 applications.
"There still is a monumental hurdle to overcome when it comes to having applications on the new OS, which is why many believe that this was not created from scratch and is likely a modified version of Linux or Android," McGregor said.
Citing a press release, China's Global Times said COS is marked by safety as it only allows for one official app store. "All applications are examined to be safe and non-pirated, compared with Android," Global Times continued.
The emphasis on COS's safety is part of China's long-term plan to control computer infrastructure and evolution in country. The Chinese government was surprised by the pervasiveness of Android mobile devices, as well as the explosion of Chinese app development, Bismuth said.
"The government correctly figured out that they needed a native system to capture that infrastructure and be less reliant on North America for software," he said, noting that the most pervasive systems in China are iOS, Android/Linux, and Windows. "The Chinese see Linux as the most acceptable because of broad international support, but Android is controlled by Google who is not exactly a friend of theirs."
Bismuth expects that COS will come in consumer and military-grade encryption variants, highlighting concern about the US government reading encrypted data in China. The Chinese don't want software infrastructure that relies on weak RSA encryption and no western company can ship strong encryption east, he noted.
If COS gains traction it could shake up the balance of current mobile operating systems, particularly Google which relies on advertising revenue, increasingly from Android devices. If Asian companies receive government subsidies for using COS, it could help spawn an ecosystem.
"Combined with other restrictions and support, the [Chinese] government could make it very difficult for foreign companies to do business in China," noted McGregor. And, if China has its own technical solutions and standards, it might become virtually impossible for foreign companies to compete.
Bismuth said he doesn't expect COS to severely impact Apple because of its higher device price points.
"This will impact Microsoft and Google... Google is based on ads so if it loses eyeballs of a million Chinese, it's going to be seriously dinged," he said.
Bismuth added that emerging countries in Africa may also adopt COS because the Chinese government provides funding to African businesses already.
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times