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Growing open source in the land of pirates

Mozilla has a tough fight on its hands. Its called the lethargy of proprietary software.

Despite its myriad of other benefits, one of the primary reasons open source has spread so far so fast has been its price tag. $0.00.

As Mozilla is finding out in China, however, "free" as in price has less relevance to a market accustomed to software piracy. Firefox is looking to more than double its market share from 2 percent of the Chinese market to 5 percent in 2008. Its price ($0) is not helping it.

What is Mozilla to do?

Mozilla appears to be taking two approaches:

  1. Pitching personalization and
  2. Seeking distribution through partnerships.

To these I might add a third (which correlates nicely with #1): ideology. Open source enables China to build a browser in its own image, starting from the exceptional Firefox platform. Proprietary Internet Explorer, controlled as it is by strict licensing and US-based Microsoft, is never going to be as close a fit with the Chinese market as a true community-developed open-source project like Mozilla's Firefox.

Hence, it's not just a matter of surface-level personalization, but also about DNA-deep customization of Firefox to match Chinese requirements.

The best place to start this conversation is with the Chinese government. Just as governments in Latin America and Europe have been the standard-bearers for open source's march into these geographies, so, too, will it be the Chinese government that largely determines the success of Firefox and other open-source software in China.

No doubt Mozilla is working on this. I hope it will be successful. As a Mac user, you learn pretty quickly just how inconvenient and potentially dangerous a Windows/IE-only world can become as you get locked out of websites (travel, banking, etc.), enterprise applications, and more. This is inexcusable for a sovereign nation like China to cede its independence to a corporation, no matter how benevolent (or otherwise) that corporation.