China’s Baidu search engine may have just inked an English-language search deal with Microsoft, but the search engine firm is looking to compete with Microsoft on another front: browsers. Baidu has launched a beta version of its own Web browser, with a design that looks a lot like Google Chrome and an app marketplace that enables users to pick and choose custom modules and content.
Like Chrome, the Baidu browser features a unified search and address bar, so users don’t have to make a distinction between executing a search or entering a Web address. The browser also offers its own online app marketplace, similar to the Chrome Web Store, where users can choose applications to augment their browser experience—thousands of programs seem to be available, including tie-ins to the Youku video services and the Weibo microblog/social networking service. When users add apps, they appear on the browser home page—rather like how installed apps on mobile devices get icons.
Currently, the browser is available for Windows; Baidu hasn’t indicated whether it plans to launch versions for Mac OS X or Linux. Reports currently have the Baidu browser using Internet Explorer’s engine for basic Web browsing, while relying on WebKit for apps.
Baidu’s move into the browser market may be significant: although Internet Explorer is by far the dominant browser in the Chinese market (with an estimated 62 percent share), Baidu is by far the dominant player in Chinese search, with an estimated 75 percent of the market. Baidu’s momentum could lead to rapid adoption of its browser, giving Microsoft a serious challenge and potentially creating an ecosystem for apps and services that tie into the Baidu browser. Chrome already has an Web Store, but Chrome’s share of the Chinese market is less than two percent; Firefox is in about the same boat.
Baidu may also see competition from other Chinese firms with their own browsers: Alibaba, Tencent, and Sogou are also putting their toes in the browser market.