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Microsoft in China Case Study, FIT, Singapore Microsoft, the world’s biggest personal computer software company, developed MS-DOS and Windows
Posted on: 12th May 2023

Microsoft in China Case Study, FIT, Singapore Microsoft, the world’s biggest personal computer software company, developed MS-DOS and Windows

Microsoft, the world’s biggest personal computer software company, developed MS-DOS and Windows, the operating system and graphical user interface that now reside on more than 90 percent of the world’s personal computers. In addition, Microsoft has a slew of best-selling applications software, including its word processing program, spreadsheet program, and presentation program.

An integral part of Microsoft’s international strategy has been expansion into mainland China, which was projected to become the third-largest PC market in the world in 2001. With a population of 1.273 billion, China represents a potentially huge market for Microsoft. Microsoft’s initial goal was to build up Chinese sales from nothing in 1994 to $100 million by 2000, a goal that it appears to have met. However, sales could have been very much higher were it not for a number of problems that Microsoft encountered in China.

The most obvious and serious obstacle to Microsoft’s success in China has been the rampant level of software piracy. Some 90 to 95 percent of the software used in China is pirated, according to figures from the Business Software Alliance. Microsoft is a prime target of this activity. Most Microsoft products used in China are illegal copies. China’s government is believed to be one of the worst offenders. Microsoft’s lawyers complain that Beijing doesn’t budget for software purchases, forcing its cash-strapped bureaucracy to find cheap software solutions.

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Thus, Microsoft claims, much of the government ends up using pirated software. To make matters worse, China is an exporter of counterfeit software. Microsoft executives don’t have to go far to see the problem. Just a few blocks from the company’s Hong Kong office is a tiny shop that offers CD-ROMs, each crammed with dozens of computer programs that collectively are worth about $20,000. The asking price is about 500 Hong Kong dollars or $52!

Microsoft officials are quick to point out that the problem arises because Chinese judicial authorities do not enforce their own laws. Microsoft found this out when it first tried to use China’s judicial system to sue software pirates. Microsoft pressed officials in China’s southern province of Guangdong to raid a manufacturer that was producing counterfeit holograms that Microsoft used to authenticate its software manuals.

The Chinese authorities prosecuted the manufacturer, and acknowledged that a copyright violation had occurred, but awarded Microsoft only $2,600 and fined the pirate company $3000! Undeterred by this limited victory, Microsoft continued its attempts to use the legal system in China to limit copyright violations.

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However, in late 1999 the tactic backfired when Microsoft sued a small Chinese firm, the Yadu Group, for $200,000, claiming it was using pirated Microsoft products. The Chinese press portrayed Microsoft as an American bully going after struggling Chinese start-ups. When the case came to court, the judge threw it out, claiming the engineers who actually admitted to using pirated software were not employed by Yadu Group, but by an affiliate firm. According to the judge, Microsoft was suing the wrong firm.

Another Microsoft response to the piracy problem has been to reduce the price of its software to compete with pirated versions. In October 1994, Microsoft reduced the price of its Chinese software by as much as 200 percent and it has kept prices low since. However, this action may have little impact, for the programs are still priced at $100 to $200, compared to $5 to $20 for an illegal copy of the same software. Even at lower prices, the cost of Microsoft’s software can amount to several months’ salary for the white-collar worker.

Yet another tactic adopted by the company has been to lobby the US government to pressure Chinese authorities to start enforcing their own laws. As part of its lobbying effort, Microsoft has engaged in its own version of “guerrilla warfare” digging through trash bins, paying locals to spy, and even posing as money-grubbing businessmen to collect evidence of piracy, which they have then passed on to US trade officials. Initially, it looked as if the tactic might work, because the US government had some leverage over China.

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China wished to join the World Trade Organization and viewed US support as crucial. The United States said it would not support Chinese membership unless China started enforcing its intellectual property laws. This demand was backed up by a threat to impose tariffs of $1.08 billion on Chinese exports unless China agreed to stricter enforcement. After a tense period, the Chinese backed down and acquiesced to US demands in February 1995.

The Chinese government agreed to start enforcing its intellectual property rights laws, to crack down on factories that the United States identified as pirating US goods, to respect US trademarks including Microsoft’s, and to instruct Chinese government ministries to stop using pirated software. However, by 2000 the level of software piracy in China was still running at 95 percent, suggesting that little progress had been made.

The United States signed off on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in September 2000, thereby losing leverage over China on this issue. Although WTO rules prohibit the piracy of intellectual property, such as software, few observers expect the WTO to be able to solve this problem. It seems to be endemic worldwide.

As if privacy was not giving Microsoft enough headaches in China, in early 2000 another potentially serious problem appeared on the horizon, The Chinese government declared it was concerned about security issues related to Microsoft software. Government spokesmen started to liken China’s dependence on Microsoft software to leaving the keys to the country’s increasingly computerized economy in the hands of a potential enemy.

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Some warned that holes in Microsoft’s computer code might allow the United States access to Chinese networks or even disable it, in times of war, to shut those networks down. “Without information security, there is no national security in politics, economics, and military affairs,” declared an editorial in the People’s Liberation Army Daily in early 2000.

With these fears in mind, in 2000 the Chinese government started to promote a Chinese-language version of the Linux operating system as an alternative to the Chinese-language version of Windows 2000. A Finnish university student created Linux in 1991.

The source code underlying Linux is now distributed free to anyone who wishes to use it with the stipulation that anybody who wishes to use it with the stipulation that anybody can improve upon it so long as any modifications are shared with the rest of the world. In the Chinese view, the fact that the Linux code is not privately held assures any security it wants to build into its computer systems will not have undetectable vulnerabilities.

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