(Open) China Rising


It's become something of cliché in recent weeks to invoke the rise of China as an economic superpower. But what about its role in the world of free software?

The signals have been very mixed over the years. On the one hand, government officials have proclaimed their intention of remaining independent of Western software, which has led to various open source projects being launched; and on the other, major deals have been struck with Microsoft, further entrenching the use of its software – mostly pirated, but increasingly licensed.

One thing seems evident: that China is certainly punching well below its weight when it comes to producing indigenous free software. Although it is hard for Westerners like me to keep tabs on what is happening there, not least because of language challenges, very few major projects seem to be coming out of the region.

Against that background, this looks like a major move from the Chinese Mozilla community:

Today (11/18/2008) we released Firefox China Edition, which can be downloaded at g-fox.cn and other popular download sites. Based on the tremendously successful Firefox 3, the China Edition is a super-charged version that provides a whole range of benefits to Internet users in China.

What's notable is that it adds features specifically for the Chinese market:

1. The China edition (literally) creates more browsing space by providing Live Margins, a sidebar to the right of the main browsing window. Live Margins provides additional search results, relevant information, music, video, and much more, all at the same time allowing the user to continue normal browsing activities in other tabs. This is a unique solution to the longstanding problem of tab browsing where only one tab is visible at any time. Live Margins gather information from multiple sources (such as typical search engines but also Wikipedia and other more vertical and focused information websites such as financial sites and weather forecast) and provide a comprehensive information feed that is more 360 degree (and not just a flat list of web links).

2. The China edition provides a number of convenience features. For example, it has a built-in button to let users easily choose the display fonts (among those available on the user’s particular system) and change their sizes. It has another one-button access to desktop functions such as Calculator and to browser shortcuts. It also enables a number of tab operations that are favored by local Chinese users, such as double click to close a tab (instead of having to bring that tab to the front and then find the little x to click on).

It is also working closely with leading Chinese sites:

one of our unique strength is our willingness, and ability, to partner and collaborate. In this release, we specifically partnered with a number leading content providers in the local market. So now you can monitor that Youku video (the Chinese Youtube) in Live Margins while keeping an eye on your regular work; you can listen to background music off the hits list provided by Sina Music. You can simply highlight a word and with a little drag motion, you can view, via Live Margins, restaurant reviews provided by Dianping (the Chinese Yelp), artist info and songs from Yobo (the Chinese Pandora), and of course search results from Baidu. You can also access Chinese books online (provided by 17K), shop online (360Buy), and see maps and a ton of other information at your finger tips.

(Screenshots on this Chinese-language site). In other words, it is innovating, rather than simply translating the Western versions.

The posting concludes:

The release of the Firefox China Edition is an ambitious experiment on the part of the Mozilla world.

Ambitious, and important, I would say, in terms of what it means for China and free software for the future.

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