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2019-10-04 03:02:17

Struggling tech giant Baidu quietly pulled the plug on its little-used 8-year-old PC browser Sunday, just two days before China celebrated its 70th anniversary. The move comes as the company battles falling share prices, a shifting internet landscape, and increased regulatory and public scrutiny.

In its announcement Sunday, Baidu thanked users for their support, but said it was suspending all of the browser’s “core functions,” and recommended users switch to a different program for their desktop browsing needs.

The news was not entirely unexpected. In April, Baidu announced it was halting support for a number of its desktop browser’s functions as part of a “departmental service restructuring.” The next month, it said it would cease updating and maintaining the browser, but left its core functions accessible for an additional four months to give users time to find an alternative.

The company has not announced plans to shutter the browser’s Android-compatible mobile version.

Baidu Browser’s desktop version was released in 2011. Between 2008 and 2012, major Chinese tech companies like Qihoo 360, Sogou, Baidu, and Tencent all launched desktop browsers in an attempt to wrest market share from Microsoft’s then-dominant Internet Explorer. Although Baidu was a relatively late entrant to the browser wars, it sought to leverage its position as the country’s dominant search engine to win over users.

Its plans were never realized, however, as Chinese consumers’ quickly embraced mobile computing after 2013. In 2018, iiMedia Research estimated that the country's desktop browser market would grow by just 1.38% that year, down from 3.41% in 2016, as consumers shifted to mobile browsers and apps for their internet needs.

Baidu has also suffered a number of hits to its reputation in recent years. In 2016, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab criticized Baidu’s desktop and mobile browsers for weak encryption and a lax attitude toward user privacy. More recently, the company has come under repeated fire from netizens and regulators for promoting fake, misleading, and lewd content through its search platform, and for trying to fence users into its ecosystem.

After Baidu announced the shutdown, many posters on popular microblogging platform Weibo suggested shutting down the entire company. Others were more measured. “Baidu’s focus is on mobile ecosystem construction now,” reads one highly upvoted comment. “Cutting a desktop browser is no big loss.”

When Sixth Tone contacted Baidu to ask about the decision and its potential ramifications, a Baidu public relations official said the company had no further comment.

According to China Internet Watch, a Singapore-based consulting company, China’s most used desktop browser is Google Chrome, with 63% of the market, followed by Tencent’s QQ Browser with a little over 8%. Although Baidu Browser once ranked in the top 10, it was not among the country’s 19 most used desktop browsers from June 2018 to June 2019, during which time it accounted for less than 0.03% of the overall market.

Determined not to miss out on the next technological revolution, Baidu has invested heavily in artificial intelligence and cloud computing in recent years, and especially its Apollo self-driving car program. But these efforts have yet to bear fruit, and the company remains reliant on search ads for 90% of its revenue.

In May, Baidu posted its first quarterly loss since 2005. Its share price has slid nearly 40% this year, and its market capitalization has dropped below that of mobile-centric e-commerce platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo.

Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A cyclist rides past the headquarters of Chinese internet search engine Baidu in Beijing, Aug. 17, 2017. IC)