Theres something to be said for being the second most popular Web browser in China.
At least thats what executives at browser maker Maxthon are hoping as the desktop software maker launches a push to expand its presence in Europe and North America. As part of that effort, the Hong Kong-based company announced this week that its eponymous browser has now reached nearly 50 million downloads worldwide.
What makes Maxthon vastly different from all the other players battling it out with market leader Microsoft for a larger share of the worldwide browser market isnt just the fact that it was originally developed in China by a now-missing Falun Gong devotee, or that 60 percent of its users are Chinese, but rather that it is built on the same code at the heart of the software giants dominant Internet Explorer.
Based on the same rendering engine designed by Microsoft for Explorer, which the company provides to outside developers, the free Maxthon browser does however offer most of the same features and design benefits evangelized by IE rivals including the Firefox and Opera applications.
Like Opera, Firefox and even beta versions of Microsofts next-generation Internet Explorer 7, Maxthon offers so-called tabbed browsing controls, onboard security tools and an RSS reader, along with a range of user interface customization options.
And much like Firefox and Opera, the company relies largely on the work of a legion of volunteer developers to continually make design suggestions and report problems to Maxthon in order to contribute to the advancement of the program.
Maxthon executives said that by offering the best of both worlds in embracing the underlying stability of Microsofts code and the attitude of something built by an open community of developers, it believes it can grow the browsers reach outside Asia.
“You really get the benefits of both models by starting with the Microsoft rendering engine and promoting development within a community,” said Netanel Jacobsson, senior vice president at Maxthon.
“Open-source people might dislike it because its not open source, and since its based on IE technologies, but we think that when people start to see what weve built, even some of those perceptions may change.”
Specifically, the executive said that Maxthon may appeal to businesses that have avoided Explorer alternatives like Firefox or Opera based on their loyalty to Microsoft technologies.
Maxthon claims that the browser supports all Web sites and many applications built with Explorer users in mind, unlike its rivals who are forced to create workarounds just to view some types of Web pages.
Maxthon also enjoys a friendly relationship with Microsoft and even displayed its browser alongside the software giants exposition at this years Consumer Electronics Show in January.
Since Microsoft makes the rendering engine available to developers free of charge, Maxthon doesnt pay the company any royalties either.
“Microsoft likes us, they dont want to kill us, they think we make them look good,” said Jacobsson.
“Considered alongside Firefox, which hundreds of millions have downloaded, we show that you can build off of Microsoft technologies and create something similar, so its actually very positive for them.”
A Colorful History
Microsoft executives confirmed that they are fans of what Maxthon has done with their companys technology. Gary Schare, director of Internet Explorer product management at Microsoft, labeled the browser as one of his firms favorite examples of how IEs code can be used to create new applications.
“Internet Explorer offers developers and IT administrators an advanced platform for Web and line-of-business applications, and one of the benefits of IE is that the browser continues to encourage a vibrant ecosystem of thousands of add-ons,” said Schare. “Maxthon has been one of the more popular add-ons, and we are really happy with the innovations theyve brought to the IE community.”
The browser has a colorful history wrapped up in the political turmoil that continues to haunt China, the worlds largest nation.
First known as MyIE and built as a customized version of the Microsoft browser, it was launched publicly in 2000 by a developer known only as “Schanyou” and began to build a following in the region.
However, at the same time his browser was drawing its first fans throughout Chinese academic and technology circles, Schanyou became an outspoken advocate of Falun Gong, a religion outlawed by the government in socialist mainland China, and began posting to multiple Web sites in defense of the religion before disappearing completely.
With Schanyou gone, the browser continued to draw users but saw little new development until being taken over by Jeff Chen, a student at the Beijing Institute of Technology who is now the chief executive of Maxthon.
Chen completely rebuilt the browser in 2003, renamed it to Maxthon, and began cultivating the softwares development community.
Next month, the company will launch Maxthon 2.0, which will include product-wide updates including a new user interface, and Jacobsson said the firm may launch a United States-based business before the end of the year.
The firm is also in talks with several large corporations that may build customized versions of the browser for internal use, he said.
While few Americans, even industry analysts, appear to have familiarity with the product seemingly based on its Chinese roots, Jacobsson believes that Maxthon could have a competitive stake in the U.S. browser market before the end of 2007.
“Its been proven that people want alternatives to Explorer, but many people, especially businesses, also dont want to risk everything by moving to a completely unknown architecture,” he said.
“With what we have today, you can utilize some of Microsofts technology while using something that is different from Explorer in most other ways; we think that could be a big selling point.”
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