When I got back from my recent trip to visit Mozilla Online in Beijing, I heard myself saying that often, but it’s very nearly a content-free statement. Of course China is different. A better, albeit clumsier, way to express things is:
The Chinese web is not the web we are used to.
“We” Mozilla, “We” the Western tech world, “We” the builders of the web. China is going about things differently, and they’re bringing more than a billion people online with them. The folks at Mozilla online understand this and were exceedingly patient and generous with their time helping me begin to do so as well.
Here’s one way of thinking about that difference:
To a first approximation, all commercial software in China is pirated. Pirated applications running on pirated Windows installs. In fact, massive cottage industries have sprung up around packaging, distributing, and even managing updates for pirated software.
The state of pirated software and rampancy of malware is such that, as Mi Jia from Mozilla Online put it,
“Even novice computer users know how to reinstall their operating system. It’s something everyone does.”
There is no expectation of quality or stability, nor even a shared set of assumptions about what a browser should be.
The Wild East
These two factors conspire to create an anything-goes market for browsers in China. Here are a few examples:
- Last year a browser emerged that went from nothing to 16% market share in a year largely through auto-installs (the company has a popular update-management product, and drops a green IE-like icon on the desktop automatically.)
- Browsers are partnering with CDN-like entities to improve latencies and dodge expensive bandwidth costs and caps, particularly for international content.
- Many browsers are now “hybrids”, shipping with multiple rendering engines so that they can advertise modern features and performance, while retaining compatibility with IE-only sites. The trident engine they ship is often IE6.
How does Mozilla succeed on a web like this? With browsers seeing 20% marketshare swings from year to year? With a significant IE6 legacy and all the pain that suggests? With a new user class who aren’t accustomed to being able to demand high quality software of any kind, much less expect it to defend their interests and respect their choices?
In the short term, we use the freedom from expectation to innovate and experiment. We won’t win by finding our own short term tricks to force installs, but we can try out new features, and learn from the experimentation of others. In the long term, we do it the way we’ve always done. China is a very different web than the one Firefox was born into, but people are still people. Web users in China deserve the same web as the rest of the world. They deserve to browse safely, and to be able to trust their browser to act as their agent. We should build software that helps them use a free and open web, and we should teach them why those things matter.
It wasn’t so very long ago that IE was the only game in town, and we changed that one person at a time. We built a community of people who learned what it could mean to have a web browser built to protect them and their interests, and then told their family and friends about it. That shouldn’t have worked, it should have been somewhere between crazy and impossible, but we did it. We’re now the majority browser in some countries, and the web as a whole is better for it.
We need to do it again, folks. We need to bring a new, Chinese web generation into our community. We need to tell them what we think the web can be, and what they should demand from their browser, whichever one they choose. People are people, so how do we reach them? How did we reach you?