Browser Wars Back OnBy Anne Chen | Posted 2004-11-22 Email Print
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Firefox fires up the market, but IE's enterprise roots run wide and deep.
The Mozilla Foundation's release of Firefox 1.0 earlier this month reignited the browser wars on consumer desktops. But on corporate machines, the free open-source browser faces an uphill battle in its effort to challenge Microsoft Corp.'s dominant Internet Explorer.
eWEEK Labs spoke with a number of IT managers who applaud Firefox 1.0 as a viable competitor to IE. But citing a lack of support from application vendors and deployment costs, most said they are sticking with IEfor now.
"I am impressed with the overall usability and performance of Firefox, but to retool our users and our applications just doesn't make sense at this time," said Michael Sherwood, director of IT for the city of Oceanside, Calif. "While IE is not progressive with new features, we have spent heavily on a back-end infrastructure that includes [Microsoft's] .Net and SQL Server."
It's not surprising that applications from Microsoft would support only IE, but many enterprise products from other vendors also support only the Microsoft browser.
While vendors that support multiple browser platforms say they do so to stay competitive, those that support only IE cite that browser's dominance and the cost of optimizing applications for multiple browsers. Most of these vendors say they'll wait until Firefox or some other browser gains corporate acceptance.
IE's market share has dropped during the last few months, but it still commands more than 90 percent of the market. Mozilla-based browsers, Apple Computer Inc.'s Safari and Opera Software ASA's Opera make up the rest.
Oceanside is standardized on IE because the city's custom applications take advantage of Microsoft's .Net platform and .Net's integration with IE, said Sherwood. As a result, deploying Firefox to 1,500 users would be more complicated than installing the browser on every desktop.
"We're not going to stop everything we're doing to deploy Firefox because the benefits simply don't outweigh the cost involved at this time," Sherwood said. "The compatibility is pretty amazing, but this doesn't change the fact that we lack the time to test every application and scenario."
However, Sherwood said Firefox has many benefits that he hopes to take advantage of in the future. For example, Firefox's open code base means the city will be able to develop internal applications and improve or alter existing code. And while Sherwood isn't encouraging users to install Firefox, he's also not stopping them. In fact, he has plans to include the browser in future workstation rollouts.
At FN Manufacturing Inc., Ed Benincasa, vice president of MIS and an eWEEK Corporate Partner, said Firefox functionality testing has found that some applications, such as the company's ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, won't function on browsers other than IE. As a result, the Columbia, S.C., precision machining manufacturer will wait until suppliers update their applications to work with other browsers before moving corporate desktops off IE.
Of course, companies that don't rely on IE-specific applications will have an easier time making the switch.
At Edmunds.com Inc., IT managers decided to support both IE and Firefox beginning with the Firefox 0.9 release in June. The Santa Monica, Calif., company's 250 users have the option of using either browser, said Sean Phillips, executive director of development for Edmunds.com. The decision was easy to make because Edmunds.com has made sure both its intranet and extranet are cross-platform-compatible.
Next page: Supporting multiple platforms.
When it comes to Web sites that are accessible by the public, Web designers say there is no reason not to support a multitude of browsers. At Swim OK LLC, a Web design company in San Diego, designers try to make every Web site they work on cross-platform-compatible.
"One out of 10 people is locked out of your Web site if you are only coding for IE," said Jimmy Chan, Swim OK's creative director. "Every project has to be compatible with at least the top two or three browsersit's our responsibility as designers and programmers to make sure a site is accessible."
Enterprise application vendors, however, follow a different set of rules and face different complications.
Vendors that have written code to work specifically with IE rather than Web standards, for example, will need to go back to optimize their applications for Firefox. On top of that, testing is required to ensure cross-browser compatibility. As a result, some vendors say they plan to wait until customers begin asking for IE alternatives.
At Eloqua Corp., a marketing automation service provider in Toronto, for example, the thick-client functionality the company's application provides is the main reason Eloqua has standardized on IE.
"I personally think Firefox is a great browser, but to minimize our efforts in browser optimization for our application, we've chosen to stick with one browser for now," said Eloqua Chief Technology Officer Steven Woods. "We will optimize for Firefox when our customer base reaches 10 or 15 percent."
At WebSurveyor Corp., in Herndon, Va., executives said they've seen an increasing number of customers access their applications using non-IE browsers. As a result, the company has worked to ensure its online Web survey applications work the same regardless of the browser being used.
"When you have a product that is used by a wide range of people, you have to support as many platforms as possible," said David Allison, CTO at WebSurveyor. "To be honest, our biggest challenge is across OS support. The difference between IE and Firefox is really minimal."
There are definite benefits to supporting multiple browsers, too. Executives at Salesforce.com Inc., for example, said they have won some accounts in part because of their decision to support multiple browser platforms.
"We're moving to an on-demand world, and one of the ways in which we access applications in this world is through Web browsers," said Adam Gross, director of product marketing at Salesforce.com, in San Francisco. "Customers ask about different platforms all the time."
Next page: Boosting Firefox with extensions.
As an open-source application, Firefox benefits from a large and enthusiastic developer community. There are close to 100 extensions available for Firefox that do everything from boosting search capabilities to creating blogs. Many of these extensions can be found at update.mozilla.org/extensions. Here are some that help overcome some of the limitations we found in Firefox.
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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