Why is Firefox - and Open Source - a Disaster in China?

Like many people, I've been tracking the steady ascent of Google Chrome - and corresponding decline of Microsoft's Internet Explorer - for some time now. Just recently, yet another milestone has been reached, apparently: Google's Chrome...

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Like many people, I've been tracking the steady ascent of Google Chrome – and corresponding decline of Microsoft's Internet Explorer – for some time now. Just recently, yet another milestone has been reached, apparently:

Google's Chrome narrowly became the world's top internet browser for the first time on Sunday 18 March 2012, according to StatCounter, the independent website analytics company.

As the accompanying graph indicates, there are some very interesting patterns to be observed.

First, that Chrome's share did indeed surpass that of Internet Explorer, but only briefly. That's because people are still using Internet Explorer at work, but when they go home at the weekend, a goodly number of them switch to Chrome, causing an interesting periodic pattern to appear in the market share graph.

Secondly, the longer-term trend is Chrome rising and Internet Explorer falling; that means we are likely to see Chrome overtake Internet Explorer as the leading Web browser in the world on a permanent basis fairly soon.

Finally, the interesting thing is that Firefox's market share is almost completely flat. Obviously, its regrettable that it isn't rising further, but its current 25% market share is respectable and sustainable, so I don't think it's a big problem. What this says is that Firefox has established itself as a kind of bedrock of openness that helps keep the other players honest.

But the StatCounter figures contain some other intriguing trends behind the basic fact that Chrome was top for a day:

The firm's research arm StatCounter Global Stats reports that Chrome topped the polls in India, Russia and Brazil, all of which contributed to it becoming the number one browser for that day on a global basis.

Looking more closely at these markets shows some surprising variation. In India, for example, Chrome has a massive 45% market share, with Firefox on 32%, and Internet Explorer way back on just 17%. That's an astonishing 77% for browser that are based around open standards and essentially open source.

In Brazil, Chrome has an even bigger market share – 49% - but Internet Explorer beats Firefox 29% to 20%.

In Russia, there's another surprise: while Chrome has 31%, and Firefox 24%, Opera has a healthy 22%, beating Internet Explorer into fourth place with 18%. I had no idea that Opera was so popular in Russia: I wonder why that is. It's also remarkable to see Internet Explorer so low down in the ranking.

In South Africa, the picture is different again: Internet Explorer has 45%, while Chrome and Firefox have roughly the same share, 22% and 21% respectively. Unusually, Safari has a relatively high score – nearly 9%.

That leaves just one "BRICS" country - China, and here again the figures are wildly different from elsewhere. Microsoft's Internet Explorer retains a near-monopoly hold on the market with 76%, while Chrome can only muster 12%. But the real shocker is Firefox, with a paltry 4%.

I suppose Microsoft's dominance here is the legacy of decades of software piracy: since the de facto standard products are free, or nearly, there's little incentive to try truly free applications like Firefox. But can Firefox really not do better than its current near-zero market share?

More generally, why is open source so little used in China? As far I can tell, other programs aren't widely used either, except perhaps Linux in embedded systems. Is it just the fact that Microsoft's products were freely available in pirated versions, and that people don't see any point in trying out the really free stuff? Or is there a larger issue here?

I certainly don't have any answers, but I think the open source community needs to start asking itself these questions and coming up with some good responses, before what will soon be the world's biggest economy becomes so inured to using Microsoft's products that it is lost to the free software world for ever.

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