Firefox faces browser clone war in China

Mozilla hosts outreach programs to drive Web standards and has special version of Firefox for China, where browser landscape features IE clones.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

The browser war in China is heating up but not quite in a way that resembles the Western markets, as Mozilla's Beijing chief explains.

While browser makers in overseas markets often tout their products' Web page rendering speeds and ability to run richer apps, China's browser landscape calls for customized browser versions that bring additional features in order to demonstrate value to users.

According to Li Gong, chairman and CEO of Mozilla's Beijing-headquartered subsidiary, Mozilla Online, the proliferation of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) clones and the dominance of pages coded for IE are among some of the barriers Firefox faces in the country.

"China is different from other markets in that there is a very active IE-clone market," said Li, in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.

An IE clone is a browser built on IE's core rendering engine, but carries a different skin and has additional features. Citing numbers from iResearch, Li said there are some 30 different clones in use in China.

Some clone browser makers have employed aggressive tactics to get their browsers adopted, he said. Some have been willing to pay fees to be bundled with pirated Windows disks--"the easiest distribution channel", said Li--while others pay members of the media to tout their wares.

"The most outrageous example is the 360 browser," he noted. Its maker distributes free security software, which upon installation, also stealthily installs the 360 IE clone onto systems and removes other browsers without first seeking user permission, said Li.

"[The 360 browser] makes it very hard to reverse [the implementation] once the software is installed," he added.

Mozilla's answer to the competition is its Firefox China Edition, which integrates a number of services popular among Chinese users, said Li. Examples of such services include IPTV (Internet Protocol TV), music and video, he said.

Mozilla's China team, set up two years ago, also conducts community outreach programs in hopes of educating users on Web standards--a bigger bugbear to Firefox, where the proliferation of IE-optimized pages prevent "even devoted Firefox users" from exclusively using the Mozilla browser, Li noted.

"Most, if not all the large Chinese banks, have online banking [sites] that use proprietary Microsoft ActiveX controls," he explained. "This means that anyone wishing to do online banking has to use IE on Windows."

Furthermore, almost all the country's Web developers test only for IE, resulting in pages that are badly formed and inoperable by browsers using non-IE cores, said Li.

China dominated by IE, clones
According to an online chart citing StatCounter numbers, China stands out with one of the lowest adoption numbers for Firefox globally, at less than 10 percent.

Li would not vouch for the accuracy of the figures, but agreed that China has been "relatively behind" in adoption figures compared to North America and Europe.

Pointing to iResearch figures, he said IE has some 60 percent share of the Chinese market, with more than 20 percent going to IE clones.

Firefox itself has an estimated 7 percent market share, he said, adding that this is higher than the non-IE competition, which includes Opera and Safari browsers.

About 24 million unique users in China use Firefox more than once per month, he said. As of June, China's official statistics show upwards of 338 million Internet users per month, said Li.

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