Microsoft's 'China problem' means IE6 lives on

Huge Internet population skews results worldwide toward old browser, Windows XP

A Microsoft executive's self-described job of driving Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) into extinction will be difficult unless he can move Chinese users off the aged browser.

According to data from Web analytics firm Net Applications, 45.2% of China's Internet users still rely on IE6.

IE6's usage share in China is more than five times that of the rest of the world, Net Applications said earlier this week when it released November's statistics. IE6's usage share in all countries other than China was just 7.6% last month.

The browser's global average share, which includes China, was 14.6%.

China's reliance on IE6 skews Net Applications' results because the Aliso Viejo, Calif. weights its data by the Internet population of each country, a methodology it said provides a more accurate picture of browser usage worldwide.

According to estimates by Nielsen, China has approximately 420 million Internet users. By comparison, the U.S., which has the second-highest number of people online, counts about 240 million Web users.

Microsoft can read the data as well as anyone, and acknowledges that China is a bastion of the nine-year-old IE6.

"Much of IE6 usage share remains in China," said Roger Capriotti, the director of product marketing for IE, in a blog post Wednesday. Not long after he took the position last summer, Capriotti said his job was to drive IE6's share to zero, a battle he added was "definitely winnable." On Wednesday, Capriotti noted that IE6 usage in China had fallen more than five percentage points since August.

In an interview Tuesday, Capriotti ticked off several factors that Microsoft believes contribute to China's IE6 addiction. "The issues relate to everything from piracy to the refresh rate of PCs there," he said. "A lot of these boxes never connect to [Windows Update]," Capriotti added, referring to Microsoft's upgrade and patch service.

In the past, Microsoft has blamed counterfeit copies for China's slow adoption of newer browsers, arguing that people running pirated Windows are leery of using Windows Update or even upgrading their browser because they're afraid Microsoft will then detect their software as illegal, and disable or cripple it.

Microsoft has long said that China is a hotbed of software counterfeiters.

Net Applications' data could not, of course, verify the piracy issue, but it did echo Capriotti's point that China's PC refresh rate -- the pace at which users upgrade to a newer operating system -- is far behind the global average.

Worldwide, 57.9% of all Internet users ran Windows XP in November, while the newer Windows 7 accounted for 19.7% of all machines connecting to the Web.

China's XP share, however, was a staggering 81.8%, said Vince Vizzaccaro, Net Applications' vice president of marketing, calling Windows XP a "huge presence" in the country.

Windows 7's share in China was 10.3%, slightly more than half the global average.

Windows XP and IE6 have a connection: That operating system, which also debuted in 2001, included IE6 as its default browser. XP users who want to run a newer version of Internet Explorer -- such as 2006's IE7 or 2009's IE8 -- have had to either manually upgrade or accept a browser upgrade from Windows Update.

In an interview Tuesday, Capriotti declined to spell out how Microsoft plans to convince Chinese users to dump IE6.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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