Google finds ally in Chinese Web browser

Google has found an ally in the Chinese Web browser Maxthon, a partnership that could help to lift Google's fortunes in China's tough search market

Google has found an ally in the Chinese Web browser Maxthon, a partnership that could help to lift Google's fortunes in China's tough search market.

The companies are working to ensure that software such as the Google Toolbar and Google Notebook work well with the browser, which is available in Chinese, English and other languages, said Netanel Jacobsson, a partner and senior vice president with Maxthon.

He declined to comment on a report Tuesday that Google Inc. has invested in the Hong Kong-based company. The report, in the TechCrunch weblog, said "multiple sources" had confirmed that Google took a minority stake in Maxthon, for an investment "rumored to be worth about US$1 million." A Google spokesman declined to comment.

Such a move would make sense for Google, which is trying to build a stronger business in China but has been losing out to Chinese search leader Baidu.com. However, it was unclear whether Google would become the default search engine for Maxthon, which would provide it the greatest benefit.

Baidu is the default search engine for Maxthon in China today, and Yahoo provides the default search internationally where it has a local presence, Jacobsson said. He declined to say if that's likely to change or to discuss the relationship with Google in detail.

Maxthon has about 15 million users worldwide -- a relatively small number -- with 55 percent of them in China, Jacobsson said. Its next biggest market is in the U.S., followed by Germany, France, the U.K., and Russia. The browser is mostly popular among tech-savy users and "the MySpace generation," he said.

The browser was originally known as MyIE 2 and developed by a student in Beijing who wanted his own, customized interface. It is based on the Internet Explorer engine and was among the first browsers to include tabbed browsing.

It also has good tools to block pop-ups and malicious HTML pages, which, besides being developed locally, helped to make it popular in China, Jacobsson said. "It's very popular in China because the Web pages scream and shout at you there," he said.

Morten Lund, a Danish investor who was an early backer of Skype, also invested in Maxthon, after seeing it being used by "a bunch of hard core techies" during a presentation in Israel, he wrote in a comment on the Maxthon blog..

Lund spent three months tracking down the browser's developer in Hong Kong, invested in the company, and later persuaded Jacobsson to come on board, he said in an interview Wednesday. Jacobsson, who lives in Israel, was formerly business development manager for the ICQ instant messaging program. Maxthon has raised close to US$5 million in funding altogether.

The browser is available only for PCs, though Jacobsson would like to change that. "I'm a very passionate Mac user, but we have to decide whether it's worth the effort," he said.

Maxthon is working on a version that uses the Gecko rendering engine for people who don't want to use IE, but completing that will take a long time, he said. "We have basic Gecko support today, you can switch from IE to Gecko while you're surfing, but what you can do is limited," he said.

The browser wasn't instantly popular outside China. "Some people were nervous and thought maybe China was spying on them," he said. Others were opposed because it was based on IE, which had many security problems early on.

"There's still some animosity, but mostly people are pleased to see another browser company," Jacobsson said.

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