Competition in China’s browser market is even fiercer than the US, with several local players jockeying for users alongside international brands. Mozilla has a small slice of that pie with about 8 million mainland Firefox users, but it is working to establish a dynamic developer ecosystem for its open source browser.

Mozilla’s China division, also known as Mozilla Online, was officially established in 2007 and it operates out of Beijing with a team of about 30. The group’s efforts are predominantly focused on Firefox, rather than other products from the foundation. Outside of China, Mozilla’s presence in Asia includes an office in Japan and an R&D center in Taipei that focuses on Firefox OS development.

Firefox has roughly 2-3 percent market share in China, according to Jack Guo, Mozilla China’s GM of Strategic Development. Still, Guo says the typical Chinese Firefox user tends to be much more skilled than the average consumer, and many of them are developers themselves. The browser has a smaller share of the mobile market, with roughly 5-6 million users.

Guo agreed that China is a more competitive browser market than the US. By his estimation, there are 30-40 browsers in China, though most of them are IE6 clones with tiny market share.

Mozilla’s goals in China aren’t just about making money, as the company is dedicated to the mission of the Mozilla Foundation and is committed to developing the local open source ecosystem.

“Compared to ten years ago, the situation has changed and improved a lot. More and more people accept open source concepts,” Guo said. “Every developer is now using at least one or two open source technology-powered tools for their daily development.”

Even the government has come to understand the role the open source software places. After browser plugins threatened to take down the official Chinese train ticketing site, officials called several browser makers to ask them to disable their plugins. However, when they called Mozilla, they acknowledged that the Firefox version of the add-on wasn’t directly from them so they couldn’t shut it down.

The train ticket plugin was believed to be part of the reason for the temporary blocking of GitHub in China that occurred last month.

“The government’s more accepting, more open to [open source],” Guo said.

When I asked what steps Mozilla has taken to gain traction for Firefox in China, Guo highlighted three points. First, the Firefox community’s volunteer localization efforts across UI, support and websites. Second, Mozilla China built a set of China-specific add-ons, including an apps center, account manager and e-banking assistant, for the browser.

Finally, Firefox comes with a different default homepage than overseas versions of the software. The page uses Chinese search engine Baidu as its default search and also serves as a portal with links to ecommerce, news, games and more. That custom homepage is actually the chief source of revenue for Mozilla China, due to ads and partnerships with Baidu and Taobao.

Chinese developers have made their own add-ons too, like a popular plugin to link up with the Sina Weibo microblog or a Taobao price comparison add-on.

With mobile emerging as an especially important trend in China, I was curious whether the upcoming Firefox OS will be targeted at taking on Android, which dominates with an estimated 86% market share, in China. However, Guo says that Mozilla hasn’t yet developed a specific strategy for Firefox OS in the Chinese market, despite the fact that two of its OEM partners (ZTE and TCL) are based in China. The company is currently focused on the initial release of the first Firefox OS phones in Brazil with Telefonica and may consider a China launch at a later date.

Firefox OS phones may be affordable enough to compete with Android in the low-end of the market, but it sounds like we’ll be waiting for a bit before the first localized devices arrive.

Image credit: Tom Brakefield