What’s behind Web browser choices

The Web browser is a tiny piece of software code that sparks fierce loyalty among end users, who debate the speed and functionality of the latest versions of Microsoft IE, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and the rest. But enterprise network managers seem less concerned about end user productivity than they are about standardization and security. That's why more organizations are standardizing on one--sometimes two--commercial Web browsers.

The economic downturn is encouraging this trend, as more organizations cite cost-savings from supporting fewer Web browsers.

"As this downturn occurred, fewer people have experimented with things that are outside of the standards," says Victor Janulaitis, CEO of Janco Associates. "Corporations are saying: I'm just going to use Internet Explorer…They want to stick with one browser and not many from a consistency standpoint and because of security alerts."

After years of flux, the enterprise market for desktop Web browsers has stabilized.

For the last year, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has held around 70% of the market, while Mozilla's Firefox has held 20%, according to Janco Associates. The rest of the market is held by smaller players: Google Chrome with 4%, Opera with 1%, Apple Safari with less than 1% and the remainder to older versions of Mozilla and Netscape browsers.

The current situation is turnabout given that market share for Web browsers has varied widely in the 15 years since the first commercial Web browser was released.

Slideshow: Commercial Web browsers turn 15 

It was 15 years ago Tuesday that the first commercial Web browser -- eventually called Netscape Navigator -- was released as beta code. While researchers including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and a team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications created Unix browsers between 1991 and 1994, Netscape Navigator was the first commercial Web browser to become a household name.

In the intervening years, the Web browser has prompted battles for market share, government-led lawsuits and attracted hacking attacks. Much of the innovation today surrounds creating new and improved browsers for mobile devices and social networking sites.

Much of the stability in the enterprise Web browser market comes from the fact that more organizations are standardizing on a particular Web browser, often Internet Explorer.

One such organization is the Isle of Man government, which is migrating 5,500 computers to Internet Explorer 8. All government employees use the Internet, Web applications and SharePoint sites, so they rely on a Web browser to get their work done every day.

Peter Clarke, CTO for the Isle of Man government, says the benefits of browser standardization include "administration, security patching [and] overhead minimized to one application performing the required business function."

"Choice isn't a business requirement," Clarke adds. "It's usually an unnecessary cost overhead."

Before migrating to IE version 8 this year, the Isle of Man used IE version 6 and 7. Users, however, complained about the lack of support for Web standards and Java applets in these older versions of IE.

Browser showdown: IE8 vs. Firefox  

Although it considered other browsers including Mozilla Firefox and Opera, the Isle of Man government said it chose IE 8 because it is the most enterprise-ready browser. So far, Clarke is pleased with the choice.

"Where the IT department once spent three or four days creating group policies to produce an installation package and simple customizations, Internet Explorer 8 helps reduce the process to hours instead of days," Clarke says.

He adds that users are experiencing no problems with internal applications, but that Web applications occasionally need "compatibility mode."

The Isle of Man government doesn't allow its employees to download other browsers onto their desktop or laptop computers. All of its computers are locked down, with authorized software applications deployed electronically.

Browser patches are handled automatically, without user involvement. If patches are not critical, they are scheduled. If they are critical, they are immediately deployed, Clarke says.

"The Web browser is the gateway to the world, trafficking video, voice and data in both directions. It's your smallest yet most widely used asset to access information and your biggest threat to the integrity of your own infrastructure assets," Clarke says. Standardization "minimizes the costs of delivering the infrastructure."

Limited browser choice

Some large organizations are limiting employees to the two most popular Web browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), for example, supports both of these browsers for its users and in its Web development efforts.

"While both [IE and Firefox] offer similar functions and features, many users are more comfortable with one browser over the other, and some commercial sites are written with functionality that only works with one of these two browsers," says Roberta Stempfley, DISA's CIO.

Stempfley says that it isn't that difficult for DISA to support two browsers in its Web development efforts.

"The differences between the two are minimal, and generally the findings that surface from the test cycle are easily rectified," she says. "The [commercial off the shelf] products that depend on client-side scripts and plug-ins create the most difficulty. More often than not, the capabilities that depend on these requirements must be turned off to abide by [Defense Department] security policies that mandate blocking of the associated functionality."

Supporting two browsers does cause some network management headaches for DISA. Browsers have vulnerabilities and exploits, and they require frequent patching and version updates. Stempfley says DISA follows special Department of Defense (DOD) guidance when it comes to browser patches.

"We follow common security practices such as applying commercial patches as they are released by the vendors," she says. "We also maintain current versions and patch updates for all deployed browsers to the extent possible within our mission environments."

Supporting multiple Web browsers also prompts a fair number of help desk calls. These include users having difficulty with the Web sites they are trying to access.

"Some of the common issues relate to Active-X, Java or other client-side scripts or plug-ins, some of which may be blocked in accordance with DOD security policies and issues related to registering or updating user's DOD PKI certificates in the browsers," she says.

Overall, Stempfley recommends IT managers allow users to select their own software as much as possible. She advises them to "establish and maintain standard Web browsers that meet the user's validated technical and functional requirements, overlaid with configurations and protective measures that support the [organization's] required security posture."

Browser free-for-all

Universities, research groups and small businesses often allow users to choose their favorite Web browser. This policy can result in contented users but harried network managers.

Boise State University, the largest university in Idaho, allows its more than 21,000 students, faculty and staff to choose whatever browser they want to access their network resources.

Boise State ditches Cisco DNS 

"We have no control over the desktops for students, faculty or staff," says Diane Dragone, network engineer at Boise State. "We support Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple Safari. We tell users that they should keep in mind that some university software works either exclusively or best on one of these browsers."

As a result of this strategy, Boise State gets a fair amount of tech support calls related to browser problems.

"I had a call not too long ago about a professor who was posting stuff on a Web site and he gave the URL to the students with a percent sign in the middle of it," Dragone said, adding that the URL didn't work with every browser. "It worked fine on the two browsers I tried, but you never know what operating system version, what browser version and what patch level people are using."

Michael O'Keeffe, president of Communication Strategies, a Toronto public relations firm serving high-tech clients, allows his 10 employees to use whatever software they want to use. "I just want people to get things done as quickly as possible," he says.

O'Keeffe has all four major Web browsers -- Internet Explorer 8, Firefox 3.5, Chrome 3 and Safari 4 -- on his desktop. He switches from one to the next depending on how fast they are working.

"I have them all on my computer at the same time. I keep circling from one to another. I get so annoyed when one of them is slow," O'Keeffe says. "With all the bars on the top of my screen -- the Google bar, the Bing bar -- the actual screen I'm looking at is getting smaller and smaller."

O'Keeffe says he uses Internet Explorer most often because he has so many Web pages bookmarked on that browser. But he says Safari works faster when he's on deadline.

"One of the reasons I switch around is that seconds really do matter in the course of my day," he says. "I'm always trying to look for the fastest way to get the information I need."

On his handheld, O'Keeffe uses the standard BlackBerry browser, but he calls the functionality dreadful. "I'd switch to an iPhone in a second because of the browser, but I don't want to spend the money," he adds.

What's next for browsers

Could a new browser shake up the market? That's what everyone is wondering about RockMelt, a start-up backed by Mark Andreessen, the cofounder of Netscape. RockMelt is supposedly working on a browser that is customized for Web 2.0 sites.

Janulaitis says it's unclear whether a new browser could have a major impact on the enterprise market.

"Right now, corporations are in the mode of cutting costs and trying to improve productivity," Janulaitis says. "It's going to be really tough to come up with an innovation that's going to get companies to switch unless you come up with a killer app."

Where Janulaitis expects to see innovation is in the creation of new browsers for mobile devices, particularly netbooks.

"I think you're going to see more innovation on netbooks rather than handhelds because netbooks have a decent screen size," Janulaitis says. "A netbook's screen size is a little bit larger than a paperback. That's reasonable. If you're over 45, you can't read what's on the small screen on the telephone."

This story, "What’s behind Web browser choices" was originally published by Network World.

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