Firefox is missing what ICT needs: users

It won't supplant Internet Explorer any time soon, customers say

Firefox 2.0 is finally in release and while preliminary reviews are running hot and cold, it appears the browser won’t have a big impact on corporate users.

The thought of a rekindling of the browser wars may be far-fetched even though Microsoft released its major browser upgrade, Internet Explorer 7, just three weeks ago.

Firefox 2.0 contains new features such as enhancements to tabbed browsing, a spell checker, and search and web feeds support.

While those may be slick features, the issue for many corporate users is that tools for such functions as installing, patching and managing Firefox, while often available as add-ons from third-parties, don’t have the support ICT requires. And corporate users still have many web-based applications designed for Internet Explorer that would have to be re-written for the Firefox platform.

“For Firefox’s entire lifespan, it has not played nice with group policies in an Active Directory environment,” says David Kleen, network administrator for Associated Students, a non-profit body that provides student programming and services at California State University. He also says the lack of an .msi install package capability as part of the browser instead of as a third-party add-on from developers such as FrontMotion is another show-stopper.

“Firefox is a pioneer of solid design, functionality and ingenuity that can only come from the open source community,” Kleen says. “It’s too bad they don’t officially support .msi packages and group policies or we would be seeing a lot more Firefox 2.0 users out there as corporations would adopt it heavily.”

He says he will roll out Firefox to a limited number of power users, but that testing of Internet Explorer 7.0 is already underway.

Firefox also can’t loosen another grip Internet Explorer has on corporations — web-based and intranet applications specifically designed for Internet Explorer using Active X technology. And even though Microsoft is adopting support for the more open Asynchronous JavaScript + XML (AJAX), which lets users develop applications that behave like desktop software, adoption is still in its infancy on the corporate intranet.

“I prefer Firefox to IE on any given day,” says Houston Pagtakhan, an IT administrator with a large retailer he asked not be named. “But it is not my organisation’s standard browser. We have a number of applications that are coded to work only with IE. I don’t agree with that, but I can’t control it.”

Pagtakhan, however, has taken up the charge and has installed Firefox 2. “I only use IE when I have to,” he says.

While Firefox 2.0 has been a few years in the making, even the developers say the focus is decidedly consumer with a few nods given to corporate deployments.

“We are much more focused on the consumer, on the best online experience for that person,” says Chris Beard, vice president of products for Mozilla, the organisation that coordinates development efforts for the free Firefox browser.

“We make that person as productive and as safe as possible online and that translates into the enterprise in a much more organic way,” Beard says. “As opposed to Mozilla going out there and trying to actively convert organisations, we see people that have discovered Firefox bringing it into the enterprise.”

Beard says that will be the focus in the future, but he acknowledges that Mozilla will look at ways to support and enable enterprise adoption, such as the proxy configuration settings that are already part of Firefox 1.5.

The Mozilla community of developers is also working to expand the Client Customisation Kit, which includes tools that allow site administrators to set policies, tweak, customise and lock down the browser interface.

Mozilla officials are working with corporate partners such as IBM to develop even more of the management tools that corporate administrators desire.

But those developments are slow to address the reality that users must fit Firefox into their existing network infrastructure and the tools to do that are not readily available or supported.

Version 3.0 of Firefox, which has been under development for the past year and is code-named Gran Paradiso, may address more enterprise issues, according to Mozilla’s Beard. The browser contains a whole new drive train and engine and is not just a tune-up, he says.

The results may help determine the future growth of Firefox among corporate users and change the argument from “what is the best browser” to “what is the best browser for the enterprise”, Beard says.

“Firefox is arguably still better than IE 7.0 in terms of capability but not in how deeply it is embedded in corporations,” says Rob Enderle, president of analyst firm the Enderle Group. “The result is that a move to another browser is painful and IT avoids pain. And they also don’t like redundant vendors and Mozilla would introduce yet one more vendor into the desktop space.”

Enderle says there are many ICT departments that have a beef with Microsoft and might move browsers to express that displeasure, but he doesn’t expect that to foster a major shift.

“Corporations don’t move easily. If they are on something they will stay on it forever,” Enderle says. “They are still using mainframes.”

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