At W3C’s Membership meeting in May, An Qi (Angel) Li of the W3C China Office organized a panel of Chinese browser vendors. The panel generated a lot of excitement among meeting participants and so I asked for a follow-up interview with the panelists. Jerry Jiang (UC Web), Qiuling Pan (Huawei), Huan Ren (Qihoo 360), and Jinks Zhao (Maxthon) spoke with me about the browser market in China, the growing role of Chinese browsers outside China, and the role of Web standards.
Ian: First, thank you, Angel, for organizing the panel!
Angel: I would like to thank all the browser vendors who shared their stories and W3C for creating this opportunity to speak to the Membership.
Ian: A comment made during the panel was that the conventional wisdom is that IE6 plays a dominant role in the Chinese browser market, but that is changing. Can you comment?
Huan (Qihoo 360): The situation was much worse 2 years ago. Since then, IE6 market share has dropped from 60% to 20% thanks to a collective effort from all these browser vendors, but in particular Qihoo 360 has a partnership with Microsoft that upgrades the default browser on Windows XP from IE6 to IE8. In addition, even for those users who choose not to upgrade browsers, the Qihoo 360 browser brings an IE8 rendering engine to them. That turns out to be a big factor in phasing out IE6.
Jinks (Maxthon): There’s a vicious cycle around IE6 in China: users keep using it because sites are designed for IE6, and people build sites for IE6 because users stay with it. We are trying to break the cycle by helping developers build more standards-compliant Web sites.
Ian: How do you work with developers?
Jinks: We participate in lots of developer activities in China where we promote Web standards. HTML5 Dream Works http://www.html5dw.com/ is one such examples.
Jerry (UC Web): In the mobile market we don’t have the same IE6 issue.
Ian: What is the distribution of browsers in the Chinese mobile market?
Jerry: There are 6 to 8 different vendors of browsers in the mobile market. UC Web has about 50% market share. For 20% of users, they use whatever they find when they first turn on their mobile device. Tencent has another significant proportion of the market. TianTian, Dolphin, Opera Mini, and many more.
Ian: To what extent are Web standards perceived as a way to bridge mobile and desktop?
Huan: With mobile platforms growing more popular, it has become clearer that HTML5 has a lot of momentum. These days, on the desktop, many game web sites are still built with Flash. This year things are changing because of the spread of mobile platforms. Mobile is really leading the trend.
Ian: My understanding is that the mainstream rendering engines are trident, webkit, opera, and gecko. Which are used in China?
Huan: Mostly Trident or Webkit (or both).
Ian: Why no Chinese rendering engines?
Huan: Several issues. It seems the Web doesn’t need any more rendering engines. In China the focus is on what other features the browser offers.
Ian: That’s a great point: why are you building a browser at all? What are the distinguishing features in the Chinese market?
Huan: Key functionalities above the core engines include:
- a cloud service associated with the browser, including cloud storage (e.g., of bookmarks, account info, password manager, extensions, themes)
- user interface improvements (e.g. IME interaction, tab management, mouse gesture, UI layout and settings).
Jerry: I agree: how user interface requirements differ from country to country is an interesting topic.
Jinks: When we started working on browsers there was no ajax, let alone HTML5. We thought at the time we could give users more interesting choices. Some of our key features involve tabbing, super drag (if you drag and drop text, we open a tab to search using that keyword). We would like to bring some of our innovations to the standards table.
Qiuling (Huawei): We are a big company with a lot of products. Traditionally, our focus has been as a telecom equipment provider but the company has decided to evolve into an integrated solution provider. We think the Web plays an important role in our strategy. HTML5 is the industry direction and very important, so our browser is based on W3C standard technology and following this direction. We have a number of (server-side) tools to improve network speed. We also have some user interface improvements (e.g., on our own video player). We want to provide users with an improved Web experience.
Ian: What is special about the Chinese mobile environment?
Jerry: We started in a garage in 2004. We were trying to build a new business, and first aimed at the mobile market. We built an email client first, and right away realized we had to support attachments. So we built what ultimately became the UC Web browser. We tried rebuilding the email client 2 years later because we thought it would be popular on the mobile client. But we were wrong. So we have dropped the email client in the China market. Indeed, that may be one interesting difference between the US and China markets.
Jerry: Our user base continues to grow rapidly. We’ve built browsers for a number of platforms, most recently for iOS and Android. There are some important differences between desktop and mobile (e.g., limited resources). For most of our users, the primary requirement is speed. The second is the user experience and a browser designed specifically for mobile devices. As mobile device screens grow, more features become interesting to those mobile users. They don’t think about standards directly, and they may not want all the latest features. They just want to see the Web.
Ian: What are your thoughts on Web apps and native apps and ensuring success of Web apps?
Huan: Audio and video is very important. The capability provided by the Audio API is not good enough, especially for games. Another challenge for Web apps relates to the subtle differences between browser implementation and documentation. If you are a serious game developer, it may still be more effective to have 2 native development teams. The problem space is well-defined. If you have one team working on HTML5, on the surface you have cross-platform compatibility but you still have to deal with subtle bugs.
Huan: Another issue is GPU. There are a lot of legacy graphics drivers so you don’t get acceleration in all cases. It’s a big problem for us to know which graphics drivers let you use various GPU acceleration features. I think in this area we do a better job than other webkit-based browsers (such as Chrome).
Jinks: There are, however, some barriers to greater adoption of Web apps. The first is run-time performance. The second is security; native apps have greater security. In laptops, Web apps have a lot of nearby “friends” like Flash and ActiveX. People are using their browsers more and more frequently (even, e.g., just as a desktop background). So there will be fewer and fewer native apps. So I think this gives the browser even more opportunities to embrace both native and web apps.
Qiuling: For me it is difficult to say who will succeed for the next several years. I think Web apps and native apps will continue to co-exist. Perhaps for some very popular apps, Web apps can provide a near-native experience. But for complex apps I don’t know whether the Web app experience will compete in the short run. To succeed, we will need to attract developers to build Web apps.
Jerry: In China, the dominant operating system on the desktop is Windows, so there is not as big a requirement for cross-platform interoperability, thus few desktop Web apps. On the other hand, in the mobile market, most people want more apps. And there are many more platforms. Although write-once deploy-everywhere is a good goal, it is difficult to achieve that completely. For instance, Symbian still has around 50% of the market in China and even more in India. But HTML5 support is way behind Android/iOS, and there are no signs of further speeding up development.
Jerry: Another interesting thing we are seeing is that HTML5 requires front-end designers to also have programming skills. These people are no longer just manipulating images, they are writing code, designing data structures, and so on. For this reason, I think some time will be required before HTML5 developers are fully up-to-speed.
Ian: Can you say a bit about what you want to accomplish within W3C?
Huan: It’s important for us to get involved with the development of core Web technology, and not just after it has been specified. We want to know why the specifications are they way they are. We also want to introduce some of our own proposals along the way.
Jinks: I am very excited about our participation. Security and privacy are particularly important to us. In China, not many people care about these issues, but we think they are very important. And HTML5 of course!
Qiuling: We have used a lot of the technologies created by W3C, not only in browsers, but even in traditional carrier products. Up to now we have only been technology users. Now we want to contribute to the industry and join the exciting work, and communicate with our international partners. The Web is a global system, not limited to a single country or department.
Jerry: We would like focus W3C’s attention on mobile requirements. We would like to share our perspectives and ensure that the resulting standards are mobile-friendly.
Ian: Thank you all for your time. It’s very exciting to have you actively participating in W3C!