Maxthon, a browser made by a tiny Beijing company of the same
name, has attracted millions of users in China for functionality that can funnel
traffic through a Web proxy and circumvent government controls on information in
search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN, Baidu.com and other popular sites or
Internet service providers in that country.
From China, the browser has caught on in Europe, and now somewhat in the
United States thanks to an appearance with Microsoft at the Consumer
Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year--though it is still largely
unknown stateside. So far, about 60 million people have downloaded the browser
since its launch in 2003. According to Maxthon research, about 14 percent of the
Chinese Web population has used the browser and 17 percent employs it for Web
"It's exploding there," said Netanel Jacobsson, a Maxthon senior vice
president and partner who's based in Israel.
Of course, Maxthon does not promote the proxy feature openly--it is merely a
shortcut that has spread virally among Chinese Web surfers. People who download
the browser must be fairly technically savvy to activate it, but according to
Jacobsson, various bulletin boards in Chinese instruct people how to do it.
"The capability is there for people who know," Jacobsson said in a recent
interview with CNET News.com.
In fact, Maxthon executives and investors downplay the feature for obvious
censorship in China has become a hot-button issue as U.S companies such as
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have entered the market and complied with the
communist regime's standards to restrict thousands of Web sites from public
access. Yahoo has even turned over information on dissidents to the Chinese
government. The search giants' practices in the country have come under fire by
everyone from free-speech advocates to the
Still, Maxthon has a grassroots following for other reasons. It includes
filters to zap all Web ads, including pop-ups--a valuable feature for the
typically cluttered environments of Chinese Web pages. It is highly customizable
with hundreds of "skins," and it includes tabbed browsing, baked-in RSS
detection and readers, and remote-file access in partnership with software
company Avvenu. It also has a development platform for plug-ins that inspires
hundreds of techies to create add-ons for the browser.
MAXTHON GAINING FANS FAST. This summer, Maxthon will release a new
version, Maxthon 2.0, that will include parallel browsing, similar to the
picture-in-picture feature on TVs, in which surfers can browse several sites in
parallel. They'll also be able to copy and paste text from one page to another
without switching screens. The future of Maxthon is allowing people to customize
it into their own information portal, Jacobsson said.
Maxthon's millions of fans and rising popularity point to the fact--yet
again--that innovation in the Web browser market is not dead, nor is it ignored,
despite a seeming end long ago to the browser wars, said analysts.
Though Microsoft's Internet Explorer has close to 60 percent share in the
United States browser market, according to Forrester Research, and as much as 85
percent globally, according to various estimates, there's still plenty of fight
left in the browser market.
As Michael Gartenberg, a veteran browser analyst and vice president of
research at Jupiter Media, put it: "It's the most important space that no one
really cares about."
In the last year, Firefox, Netscape's legacy, made inroads on IE's dominance,
drawing more than 130 million downloads in less than two years. Opera,
Netscape, Flock and Apple Computer's Safari have lured strong followings of
their own, but none enough to overthrow IE. Firefox's threat and popularity has
spurred a recommitment from Microsoft, however, with its introduction of IE
"The browser wars continue, yet these days they're more border skirmishes
than global conflict because there's just no money to be made selling the
browser," Gartenberg said.
Some tech investors say people shouldn't forget that the browser is
fundamental to the future of the Internet, giving people better access to
information on the Web and the desktop if done right.
"The advent of broadband, and technologies like AJAX and RSS are redefining
the role of the browser from a dumb reader to a single point of customization
for users," said William Tai, a venture capitalist with Charles River Ventures
and an investor in Maxthon.
"The first click is the browser, it's the instrument panel to the Web," he
Still, most of the money to be made on Web browsers today is through search
advertisements. Firefox, for example, makes money on fees from search ads from
Google, which is its default search engine.
Within China, Maxthon's default search function is served by Baidu, one of
the biggest services in that country. Outside of China, Yahoo and Ask.com power
its search features.
Maxthon turned a profit beginning in 2004. Roughly 80 percent of its revenue
comes from search-related ads, collected from partners.
Despite not seeking funding, the company took on an investor, Charles River
Ventures, in recent months. That deal was largely because of great interest on
the part of Tai, according to both Tai and Jacobsson. The investment adds to
early funding from Morten Lund, a seed investor in Skype. The company plans to
use venture funding to add to its development team of about 15 in Beijing.
Still, a plus and minus for Maxthon is its rendering engine, which is
actually Internet Explorer. Maxthon is built on top of the IE engine, removing
it from direct competition with the software giant. Executives say that lets it
add value to the browser through features like tabbed and parallel browsing. But
that can be a double-edged sword, too, turning off people who dislike
"We make them look good," he said. He added that Maxthon has tweaked IE to
make it faster, and people can choose to render Maxthon with Gecko, Mozilla's
original underlying engine.
"Browsers are very much like a car," said Jacobsson. "Most people don't care
what engine is inside, (they) choose which type fits, with the right shape and