Ignoring your business's browser? That's a mistake
Organizations 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 has 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, like office productivity, collaboration, and CRM. In addition, on-premise enterprise applications, whether in-house or commercial products, increasingly favor 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 that IE holds 78 percent of the installed base, Firefox 18 percent, Chrome 2 percent, Safari 1.4 percent, and Opera 0.2 percent. Even within the IE family, fundamental changes in IE8 in many ways 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. And the pace of browser updates is only adding to the pressure.
Treating the browser as 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," says Sheri McLeish, a Forrester analyst.
"The browser is one of the most important pieces of software we have right now," says Andy Armagost, the Unix/Linux system administrator at Brigham Oil & Gas. The browser is the front end to various applications, including Yahoo's Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which is the company's main e-mail and collaboration platform. So it's not surprising that "a good portion of the help desks requests we get are related to browsers, like needing a particular plug-in to do something on a particular Web site," Armagost says.
At Brigham Oil & Gas, the 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 & Gas has 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 says.
Most businesses ignore their browsers to their detriment
But Brigham Oil & Gas' hands-on approach to its users' browsers is the exception rather than the rule. A recent Forrester Research study found that 60 percent of enterprises are still using IE6, an "old" browser (Microsoft recently released IE8).
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, says Forrester's McLeish.
That IE6 is by far the most widely used browser among enterprises reflects most IT departments' lack of interest in browsers. "There's a tremendous lack of education for employees from their IT departments around browsers," McLeish says.
However, this laissez-faire approach toward browsers won't last long, McLeish says: "The rise of SaaS [software as a service] will force enterprises to at least come up with a browser strategy for their workforce."
The answer is not standardizing on one browser
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," said Kris Tuttle, founder of Research 2.0, a research company that specializes in emerging technologies and investment.
But standardizing on one isn't the answer to the diversity challenge that today's browser choices create. Even for a small organization 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 e-mail system. Employees also like Chrome a lot, but other software and sites run only on IE, he said. "The fact is that you probably end up with Chrome, Firefox, IE, and maybe Safari on your machine, and you'll use [one or another] depending on the application," Tuttle says.
Browser variety is a big challenge for developers
The new multibrowser reality is a challenge for developers, particularly if they create public-facing Web sites or commercial Web applications.
For example, Zoho, which sells a Web-hosted suite of communication and collaboration software for small and medium-size business, 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," says Raju Vegesna, the company's product evangelist. "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."
Guillermo Söhnlein, who does consulting at Fortivo Consulting for a variety of technology startups, has seen the difficulty firsthand in some of the software developers he has worked with. "It puts a lot of added pressure on the application developers to make sure they have all the processes in place before they release the app and continually monitoring the browsers after the app is released," he says.
The difficulties not only hit startup software developers. 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.
For example, in the official "known issues" page of Google Docs, one item titled "Document fails to load" reads: "The latest version of Safari -- 3.0.4 -- for Leopard sometimes fails when loading a document. Betas of Safari work fine. We are investigating. Any information would be welcome."
Another one item titled "Can't rename sheets within a workbook" reads: "Firefox Skype extension often causes problems with renaming sheets within a workbook. As a temporary solution, you may want to uninstall the extension."
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 and gets access to early releases of new versions that normally aren't publicly available, says Kevin Henrikson, Zimbra's director of engineering.
Zimbra handles the challenge by having its software detect the absence or presence of certain features in users' browsers, something Henrikson calls "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 says.