First Impressions from China

Great Wall in FogChina is different.

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.

User expectations

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?


  1. People are people. Very correct and I agree it.
    China is different, and mozilla need to try and teach the users again.

  2. You reached me by making a web browser that was fast and stable. You also gave me tabs (you weren’t first, but you were first major one to do it right). Actual innovations in actual usability were nice.

    Somewhere along the line, you lost your path, and now make a web browser that leaks GB of RAM, periodically stalls, and sucks up most of my CPU. I’m not sure what I’ve gained in the process. I know what web designers and programmers gained, but most of us users don’t care about themes, plug-ins, ACID, XUL, or other crap like that. It’s just bloatware. Firefox still has enough marketshare that if it supports up to HTML 3.2, that’s what designers will be forced to design to. On the other hand, if it is slow and buggy (which it is), users will switch to something else.

    Much like I’ve now mostly switched over to Google Chrome (the same is true for most of the tech elite I know). I miss the right-click ad blocking, but otherwise, it’s a much better experience.

    If you do continue down the bloatware path, I see the next innovations being in:
    * Remembering web sites I’ve visited, and letting me search them. The problem of “I read this neat article 5 months back” should be solved. The computer has enough disk space to remember the text of everything I ever read.
    * Related, having better static behavior. It should be able to dump and undump state of a web page. If Firefox crashes while I type this comment, or I accidentally hit the “back” and “forward” buttons, the page should come up as it is (including everything I typed). If I haven’t touched the tab five tabs over in a while, it should swap out to disk (not keep JavaScript running) and swap back in when I use it again. If I bookmark a page and it goes away, it should still live somewhere in some cache.

  3. A browser that successfully dodges Great Firewall restrictions would gain share in China quickly, but it would have to do a better job than Tor.

  4. I am from china. yes, a browser fighting against Greate Firewall will be popular, especially for tech guys. But the government will kick you out.

  5. “the same is true for most of the tech elite I know”

    ha ha ha I like how you fancy yourself as “tech elite” and that all your acquaintances are as well.

  6. Really interesting article. I am English, living in China, and sometimes the web seems upside down here from my experience as a web developer. The average Chinese web user simultaneously expects more and less from the web than Anglo-American equivalents.

    They expect it to do more – be super fast, have everything for free, to be at the centre of their lives, to integrate on mobile platforms seamlessly. Not as an aspirational target, actually like this.

    Yet they expect lower standards – poorer overall web design, invasive ads a permanent feature, poor quality knock-off software, viruses, crappy proprietary download-only web applets instead of browser based open-standards technology.

    Competition in the Chinese market is much more ruthless, with competitors willing to copy your work without fear, and consumers willing to jump ship for another product with a shinier looking logo.

    Foster talent, get your hooks into young developers and consumers by offering direct honest and upright products, stick to your principles and ride the storm. China’s web is a wild-east now simply because of a lack of holistic education about computers and a lack of intellectual property rights protection. That will slowly change, I’m sure.

  7. I’m not sure I understand why you care. Mozilla is free and open source. It’s not a commercial product. You shouldn’t care about piracy (at least of Mozilla). And you shouldn’t care about “market share”.

    Make your browser better and allow nature to take its course.

  8. i am a user of firefox from China. i am chinese, born and raised here in beijing. and i write as a hardcore firefox fan, and i write with respect for what an excellent browser firefox is, and how guys beat IE.

    but seriously, that last paragraph struck me as typically western-centric. you need to tell me what i should demand from a web browser? really? why don’t you just show me an alternative, and let me decide which one i like better?

    i actually agree with you on just about everything you said in your post. but this way of coming up to the Chinese and say “i think this is what you should want” just rubs people the wrong way. it implies superiority on your part – that you know better. Yahoo, Google, eBay and probably a number of other awesome (or once-awesome) internet companies tried this in China, and nobody pulled it off.

    i a firefox fan, and it and safari are the only browsers i use. and i recommend it to my chinese friends. but i merely show them why i think firefox is better, and let them decide for themselves. so far i have converted exactly zero person, but i respect that. i feel this is one place where persistence wouldn’t really pay off. i don’t use the web the same way my friends do. i don’t live their lives. it’s up to them to decide. (or maybe i am just doing a poor sales job.)

    as a developer though, you can do more. but not in the sense of forcing something down people’s throat. but learn how they use the web, and create a product that they would love. before you think you NEED to bring a generation of Chinese into your community, it wouldn’t hurt to ask what exactly you bring to the table? why should a chinese person care?

    btw, i have a presentation from Dr. Kai-fu Lee’s Innovation Works. it shows how Internet usage is different between China and the US. You might find it interesting. Just email me and i will forward it to you.

    Good luck and keep up the great work at Mozilla. I am a fan, really.

  9. Thanks for getting outside of the Silicon Valley bubble, Johnathan… it’s difficult (as “fh” accurately attests above), but it’s also one of the great responsibilities for native-English speakers now: How to bring diverse communities together, while still respecting our differences?

    I’ve always admired the volunteerism of Mozilla, the “let’s make things better” side of the movement. As some of the above comments suggest, showing an example of what a better browser _could_ be definitely seems valuable.

    I don’t have good suggestions for what Mozilla “should” do (although I agree that the clear first question is “Why?”), but have a couple of tangents to offer:

    o Some type of language-translation integration could be of great help, across regions… Google’s engines are really good now, although the Google terms-of-service often seem to have difficulties with all the different things they offer. Perhaps make it easier for people to see into other cultures, and for other cultures to see into one’s own…?

    o I’m in Yunnan right now, and have been struck this trip by how forbidden web-beacons slow down pages (Twitter, Facebook, eg). It takes awhile for such prohibited HTTP requests to time out. Perhaps a regional Adblock Plus could speed load times for international pages?

    o Social services in China are massive, but virtually invisible to non-native readers. (I’m still trying to figure out my Weibo account. 😉 Is there a way that Mozilla could help internationalize Chinese pages, to make it easier for others to really see what people are saying here?

    tx, jd/adobe

  10. “why don’t you just show me an alternative, and let me decide which one i like better? ”

    If people don’t understand there’s alternatives, they will never find out whether it is better or not. If they don’t know there’s something worth caring about, they’ll never look. It’s not ‘Western-centric’, it’s just experience from the earlier days of people using the web – they didn’t care about finding better features until people explained to them they had a reason to care and they realised these things did matter.