China's Web audience is now the second most active in the world, according to the latest data, and one industry executive predicts the mainland will become the second-largest personal computer market by year's end. Web Side Story, which measures global Internet traffic by tracking access to the 125,000 most active sites, has ranked China behind the United States but ahead of Japan. Chinese Web surfers accounted for 6.63 per cent of the traffic to these popular sites, compared with 42.65 per cent for the US and 5.24 per cent for Japan, it said. Separately, Christian Morales, vice-president of Intel Asia-Pacific, said he expected personal computer shipments in China to surpass those to Japan by the end of this year. 'Before, we thought it would take another year or two. But this year itself, China will overtake Japan in the personal computer market,' Mr Morales said. The Web Side Story statistics are in line with findings by other measurement and market research firms, which indicate China may already have the world's second-largest Internet audience. ACNielsen, in a report issued earlier this year, found China had almost 57 million users accessing the Internet from home, compared with 166 million in the US and 51.3 million in Japan. China's own Internet measurement and domain name registration body, the China Internet Network Information Centre, said there were 45.8 million Web users in the mainland by July. In January last year, it had estimated there were 22.5 million Web users in China. Estimates from most firms are doubling every 12 to 18 months, and many expect there is still room for growth as home computer penetration is put at about 5 per cent by ACNielsen. Commenting on Mr Morales' projection that China's PC market would overtake Japan's later this year, analyst Kitty Fok of IDC said it all depended on what happens in the Japanese market. Ms Fok said China showed strong growth, with 2.4 million and 2.5 million units shipped in the first and second quarters respectively. Meanwhile, Japan's shipments have declined year on year, to 3.8 million and three million in the first and second quarters. 'It's still significantly higher than China for the first half. It could be [Intel is] looking at another area, because we are looking at vendor shipments,' Ms Fok said. IDC, which expected China's PC market to grow 15 per cent to about 10.1 million for the entire year, projected China would surpass Japan's PC market in 2004, but this could happen sooner if the Japanese market continued to flag. The firm said there were 13.4 million PCs shipped in Japan last year and 42.5 million in the US, against 8.8 million in China. Many of China's PC purchases are so called white-box versions that use the same components but are priced more cheaply because they do not carry big names. Ms Fok said the top 10 brands accounted for 62 per cent of the market but another 39 per cent of China's PCs were sold by lesser-known brands that often operated in small geographical areas. Legend, the main national brand, had 28 per cent of the market in the first quarter. Internet use could be one of the main drivers for home PC adoption. The China Internet Network Information Centre survey found that 62 per cent of Internet users accessed the Web from home, 43 per cent from the office, 22 per cent at school and 17 per cent from Internet cafes. It remains to be seen how the data will be affected by the government's moves to regulate and shut down scores of Internet cafes following a fire at a Beijing cafe earlier this summer. Web Side Story's information likely does not cover traffic to many mainland sites. Rather, it shows that China's Web surfers are avid users of information found on global sites. It also shows the Internet is becoming more internationalised as US traffic continues to decline in proportion, from 45.02 per cent in January to 42.65 per cent.