China's openKylin 1.0 arrives. Our verdict? Not a bad-looking, er, Ubuntu remix
It's certainly not the country's 'first homegrown open source desktop operating system'
Version 1.0 of the openKylin Linux distro for the domestic Chinese market is here – and it works pretty well in English, too.
As The Reg reported last year, openKylin has been in development for some years. The FOSS desk took openKylin 0.7 for a spin soon afterwards. It reached version 0.9.5 at the start of 2023, and now the finished release 1.0 is available, codenamed "Yangtze" after the great river of China, the longest watercourse in Eurasia.
If you want to try it and don't read Chinese, don't panic. The hotkeys are clues: [T]ry or [I]nstall
There has been some breathless coverage of openKylin 1.0 in the world news media, such as this report on China's "first homegrown open source desktop operating system," which has been widely quoted in other outlets. This suggests some of the issues with the reliability of info from Chinese state media because openKylin is not quite as homegrown as all that.
Once you get to the installer – the last icon on the desktop – we're sure you will work out what to click
OpenKylin is an Ubuntu remix. It's been updated, and this release has version 6.1 of the Linux kernel – although the boot menu offers an option to use the previous LTS kernel, 5.15 – but it uses an Ubuntu-flagged build of GCC 9.3, which suggests to us that underneath, this is Ubuntu 20.04, with some selective updates on top. This is backed up by hundreds of occurrences of the word "ubuntu" scattered through its config files.
It has the UKUI desktop – we think it's the latest UKUI 4, but it reports itself as version 1.0 in the system's Settings app. The desktop looks very similar to the one in Ubuntu Kylin 22.04, but it had no problems with VirtualBox's 3D acceleration and didn't default to dark mode as that release did.
The default web browser is Firefox, and the office suite is WPS Office. There's a Chinese language app store, complete with a Mobile section for Android apps, although the Kmre runtime wouldn't start under Virtualbox.
As in previous versions, there's a Weather app with an indicator in the taskbar, but it only supports cities in China. The onscreen keyboard now has a floating button, and slightly confusingly, as well as a keyboard language indicator, there's also a separate one for the floating button. There are also taskbar buttons for configuring VPN connections and a voice assistant, although this didn't work in a VM. There's also a button to show or hide a floating notifications sidebar, which reminds us of the one in macOS.
The range of bundled tools is pretty good: there are diagnostics tools, biometrics support, a standalone graphical package installer, and a bundled IDE, Kylin Code, a forked version of Microsoft's VSCode. Under the hood, there's no Snap or Flatpak support, and some typical tools are't installed – for instance, we were surprised to find the
less pager missing. On a BIOS-based VM, the installation program configured a small
/boot partition and the rest of the OS in a logical drive, and surprisingly, no swap partition or swap file.
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OpenKylin 1.0 is an attractive, modern distro with a pleasing desktop and some nice additional features. What it's not is the first all-Chinese FOSS operating system, or even the first all-Chinese Linux distro. It's Ubuntu. Fair enough, that's arguably the most solid, compatible choice to base a distro on. There's nothing at all wrong with making a new meta-distro so long as you remove Canonical's trademarks: Canonical has always permitted this.
WPS Office 11.1 is not open source, but it's freeware and claims a high level of MS Office compatibility – right down to the ribbon-based UI
The project claims over 800,000 users, which is not bad going but doesn't place it in the Linux-distro big league just yet. Over 4,000 contributors and 3,000 repositories seems a little high, but then again, functions like an Android runtime and a voice assistant are not trivial, and it also supports Arm and RISC-V hardware along with x86-64.
UKUI is one of the most polished Linux desktops around, and puts most of the more mainstream Western desktops to shame. In our humble opinion, it's better looking than KDE or MATE, more functional than GNOME, and easier to use than all of them. If openKylin 1.0 is any indication, China is becoming a major force in desktop Linux innovation. ®