Organisations have traditionally devoted minimum attention to Web browsers on users’ PCs, but IT departments are finding they need to change that hands-off strategy.
In the past two years, a variety of factors have made browsers a much more important piece of business software for IT to deal with. One consideration has been the rising popularity of cloud computing in the enterprise, which has led CIOs to green-light the adoption of Web-hosted applications of various types such as office productivity, collaboration and CRM. In addition, on-premise enterprise applications, whether in-house or commercial products, increasingly favour browsers as their front-end components.
Last but not least is the rising range of viable Web browsers. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer for a long time was the only browser option, but today there are significant user bases for Firefox. Forrester Research reports IE holds 78 per cent of the installed base, Firefox 18 per cent, Chrome 2 per cent, Safari 1.4 per cent, and Opera 0.2 per cent. Even within the IE family, fundamental changes in IE8 mean IT should treat it as a separate browser.
The greater dependence on a greater stable of browsers, not to mention their numerous versions and plug-ins, complicates the environment that IT must manage, with greater impact on the business when compatibility or other issues arise.
An enterprise app
“Enterprises need to think about the browser as a productivity tool, not as a transparent application. They need to look at browsers more strategically,” Forrester analyst, Sheri McLeish, claimed. “The browser is one of the most important pieces of software we have right now,” the Unix/ Linux system administrator at US-based Brigham Oil and Gas, Andy Armagost.
The browser is the front-end to various applications, including Yahoo’s Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which is the company’s main email and collaboration platform.
The company’s browser of choice is Firefox 3 because the IT department believes it offers better performance and is more secure than IE and previous Firefox versions. Thus, Brigham Oil and Gas designed several of its in-house applications specifically for Firefox.
Still, the IT department keeps an eye on the other browsers. It has to track and support IE, which is the only browser option for certain sites and Web applications that use Microsoft’s ActiveX technology.
And it tracks Google’s Chrome; though still young, Chrome promises interesting improvements in performance and other areas, Armagost said.
Rule of thumb
But Brigham Oil and Gas’ hands-on approach is the exception rather than the rule. A recent Forrester Research study found that 60 per cent of enterprises are still using IE6, an “old” browser.
These hands-off enterprises are depriving their users from the security, performance and functionality enhancements that newer browsers like IE7, IE8, Firefox 3, Chrome and Safari 4 can offer, Forrester’s McLeish said.
That IE6 is by far the most widely used browser among enterprises reflects most IT departments’ lack of interest in browsers. However, this laissez-faire approach toward browsers wouldn’t last long, he said. “The rise of software-as-a-service [SaaS] will force enterprises to at least come up with a browser strategy for their workforce,” McLeish said. Keeping up with the latest about browsers, their different versions, and their plug-ins is getting harder, not easier.
“You certainly have fragmentation and confusion in browsers today because you have a lot of innovation coming from the major browser companies,” founder of Research 2.0, Kris Tuttle, said. The research company specialises in emerging technologies and investment.
But standardising on one isn’t the answer to the diversity challenge. Even for a small organisation like Research 2.0, Tuttle has found the need for all team members to use several different browsers for the various Web applications the company uses. Research 2.0’s preferred browser is Firefox, which it uses for Google Apps and Gmail, the company’s primary email system.
The new multibrowser reality is also a challenge for developers, particularly if they create public-facing websites or commercial Web applications. For example, Zoho, which sells a Web-hosted suite of communication and collaboration software for SMBs, has had to increase the time and resources it spends tweaking and supporting its applications for different browsers.
“It’s a constant effort and it’s not insignificant,” the company’s product evangelist, Raju Vegesna, said. “We need to make sure our applications work perfectly not only with the different browsers and their different versions, but also with their plug-ins.” A scan of known issues of Google applications shows how far-ranging the problem is. The posts reveal that when a Web application malfunctions, IT administrators and commercial developers have to do detective work to find out why a particular browser is misbehaving.
The issue of browser variety is also very much on the radar at messaging vendor, Zimbra, which stays in close contact with the browser vendors, its director of engineering, Kevin Henrikson, said. Zimbra handles the challenge by having its software detect the absence or presence of certain features in users’ browsers, something Henrikson called “feature sniffing”.
The company has created a database of browser capabilities and uses that to design software that can adjust its operations based on what is and is not available in any particular browser, without tying code modifications to a specific browser brand or version, he said.