'Browsing' the Market

By Jeanette James

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2005 may well a critical year in browser-market history, raising two key considerations for CIOs: should they allow, support and/or encourage alternatives to Microsoft's market-dominating Internet Explorer (IE), and do they need to re-tool their corporate Web sites to work with alternate browsers such as the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox and Opera from Opera Software?

The Year of the Browser

In its annual report on predictions for the technology, media and telecommunications sector, Deloitte & Touche USA's innovation director Naresh Lakhanpal said to expect "more competition, more choice and more functionality" in the browser market. He may well be right.

"Now, more recently, there's been heightened awareness (of IE alternatives) because of the recent releases of Firefox," notes Brandon Nutter, senior director of technical services at IT consulting firm Taos, in Santa Clara, Calif.

To be sure, a growing number of Web surfers are visiting corporate Web sites with non-IE browsers. Lakhanpal estimates Firefox at about five to six percent of the browser market, compared to IE's 90% market share.

In March alone, more than 2.6 million people visited the Firefox site to download the browser and obtain more information about it, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. As the firm points out, the browser's growing popularity also boosts the importance of Web site compatibility with Firefox.

For CIOs, that not only means more users bringing Firefox onto the corporate network, but also more visitors coming to their corporate sites with Firefox and other non-IE browsers.

Depending on which individual sites are involved, as many as 10- to 20-percent of your site's visitors may come calling via Firefox, said Nate Root, vice president and research director at Forrester Research.

So if, for example, your corporate site doesn't adhere strictly to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), that may not cause any trouble for IE users -- but it can make your site look broken to Firefox users, Root notes. Likewise with pop-ups. "By default, Firefox comes with its popup blocker locked and loaded."

Recognizing the Browser Blues

Firefox 1.0 launched in November last year in versions localized for two dozen countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Since then, it's been downloaded some 30 million times, according to the Mozilla Foundation. And some of those downloads have come from within corporate walls.

"You are seeing non-IE browsers being brought into the enterprise," Lakhanpal said.

User demand is one key sign for CIOs that it's time to sit up and notice IE alternatives, Forrester's Root said. Another clue are serious security troubles that a company might have had due to the Microsoft's browser.

Security is, in fact, the main reason companies look beyond IE, Lakhanpal said, although that situation is likely to fluctuate with time. "ActiveX allows some (security) openings," he said. But "As Mozilla starts to gain market traction, it will begin to be hit. It's a numbers game. The market leader is always the one that everyone goes after."

Users are also being lured by newer features built into Firefox, such as tabbed browsing, advanced password management and integrated pop-up blocking. "You can do all that today with Microsoft," Lakhanpal explains, but you need to download the appropriate plug-ins.

Smaller, newer companies without a large investment in Microsoft applications may also have an easier time switching their smaller number of users to a different application. With some 40 or 50 desktops to support, for example, Taos uses Firefox as its default browser, Nutter said.

Companies with multiple operating systems may also be Firefox fans, given that the browser hit the market simultaneously with versions for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. "The most pragmatic reason (for Taos' use of Firefox) is that we support Linux users," Nutter notes.

When considering any change in your company's approach to browsers, Lakhanpal recommends the basics. The first question, he said, is "Do you see a return on investment?"

It's also smart to ask users what they'd like to use and why. If most users are satisfied with your current browser, there may not be much point in changing.

Of course, CIOs don't have to switch all users away from IE if some prefer or need an alternative. But again, CIOs should consider the support burden that another application may pose to their staff.

"Just because a browser is free it's not necessarily the most cost effective solution," Lakhanpal said. Supporting multiple browsers can "become a can of worms for the CIO."

Root recommends having alternate browsers in place so that, for example, if an IE-specific virus is identified, the network can automatically notify users to switch to Firefox until the problem is solved -- and vice versa.

"Firefox is not a white knight," Root cautions. "You also have to be prepared to shut down Firefox."