Business users still favour Internet Explorer over Firefox

With a new CEO on board and a major update of its Firefox Web browser expected this year, Mozilla Corp. hopes to reinvigorate its campaign to pull users away from Microsoft Corp.’s still-dominant Internet Explorer software.

But Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla continues to expend little energy on wooing IT managers to formally adopt Firefox for deployment within their organizations, according to analysts and users of the open-source browser.

In the past, Firefox faced two main obstacles that limited its adoption by corporate users: its immaturity, and its incompatibility with corporate Web applications and intranets that relied on Microsoft technologies such as ActiveX.

Now nearly three-and-a-half years old and nearing the release of Version 3, Firefox no longer can be accused of being callow. And while many IE-only apps remain, plenty of others have been overhauled to support Firefox as well, according to Rafael Ebron, general manager of Browser Garage LLC, a Web consulting firm in Mountain View.

However, other obstacles to broader adoption have emerged. Mozilla thus far has neglected to develop tools to help IT departments deploy and manage Firefox, and it doesn’t offer paid technical support services to risk-averse corporate users.

“The enterprise is looking for a neck to choke, and that is absolutely what is missing from Firefox,” said Ebron, a former product manager for Firefox and its predecessor, Netscape Navigator. “If you have a problem with IE and you are a big enough customer to Microsoft, [CEO] Steve Ballmer is going to come out and talk to you. That isn’t there yet from Mozilla. It isn’t their focus.”

Mozilla claims that Firefox has more than 125 million users. And according to market researchers, the open-source browser has made some steady, albeit relatively small, inroads against IE on usage.

For example, Net Applications Inc., an Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based company that tracks visitors to about 40,000 Web sites, said Firefox held a 17% share of browser usage in December, compared with 76% for IE.

Similarly, Janco Associates Inc. in Park City, Utah, currently gives Firefox a 16% usage share among visitors to 17 business-to-business Web sites that it monitors. Janco puts IE’s share at 67% while giving 9% to Netscape and 3% to Google Desktop. (Netscape is credited with only a minuscule market share by Net Applications, which doesn’t include Google Desktop in its rankings.)

Firefox’s market share has increased from 14% since last January, while IE’s share has eroded by two percentage points, according to Janco. But Firefox’s gains have mostly come from workers installing the browser on their own, without IT’s blessing, noted Janco CEO Victor Janulaitis.

“Users are frustrated with Microsoft’s product, and more people are starting to experiment in enterprises with Firefox,” he said.

Firefox may gain more users following AOL LLC’s Dec. 28 announcement that it will discontinue Netscape Navigator — and its recommendation that users switch to Mozilla’s browser.

But Mozilla’s laissez-faire attitude toward corporate users can lead to awkward situations, such as the one at a leading vendor of Web-based software. The company’s CIO, who asked not to be identified, said it is a longtime Microsoft shop that has standardized on IE as its browser of choice.

Even so, all of the apps that the vendor sells or uses internally can run on multiple browsers. And demand for Firefox among its employees is so heavy — “ runs better in Firefox,” one worker told the CIO — that the internal ratio of Firefox to IE usage currently is about 60:40.

The big downside is the difficulty of managing Firefox, especially in comparison to administering IE, according to the CIO. For example, he said that the IT department can patch IE via automated central updates. On the other hand, “we have to send an e-mail and have users manually download Firefox updates, which is not ideal,” he said.

That won’t change in Firefox 3. A Beta 2 release available now lacks features that IT managers typically want, such as the ability to automatically deploy multiple copies of Firefox through Windows Installer package files — better known as .MSI files, for the file extension they use.

The update also can’t be patched from a central console, like IE can be through Microsoft’s Windows Server Update Services. Nor can it be managed and secured via Active Directory, Microsoft’s tool for setting group policies.

As a result, many IT staffs looking for help in rolling out or managing Firefox have resorted to using free third-party tools.

One, FirefoxADM, lets administrators centrally manage locked or default settings in Firefox via group policy settings in Active Directory. Another, called FrontMotion, offers basic .MSI installation packages for Firefox for free, and custom ones for a small fee.

FirefoxADM has been downloaded about 22,000 times, according to Mark Sammons, a senior computing officer at the University of Edinburgh, who created the tool and is using it to manage Firefox on 8,000 PCs at the Scottish school.

FrontMotion’s installers has been downloaded nearly 131,000 times, said Eric Kuo, its developer. By day, Kuo works as an IT director at a medical company in Lubbock, Texas, that he asked not be identified.

Both FirefoxADM and FrontMotion are open-source products. But each is largely developed by a moonlighting individual. That has hurt FirefoxADM, in particular; Sammons acknowledges that he hasn’t added any new features to the management tool in the past two years.

“I have no illusions as to what FirefoxADM is,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think it works well, but ultimately, it’s a work-around for functionality that really needs to be built into Firefox itself.”

An even bigger problem is that neither of the two tools has been formally tested and certified by Mozilla.

“It’s absolute FUD to say that you can’t administer Firefox well within an Active Directory environment with third-party tools,” Ebron said, using the acronym for fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Nonetheless, both he and Kuo said that having Mozilla’s official seal of approval would be a big plus to corporate users planning major deployments.

“It comes down to a perception of who owns the tools, not the tools themselves,” Kuo said. He noted that preliminary talks with Mozilla about selling FrontMotion — a move he would welcome — went nowhere.

Mozilla has no plans to add tighter integration between Firefox and Active Directory, according to Chris Hofmann, the open-source vendor’s director of special projects. He dismissed Active Directory as a “proprietary technology” that would hurt rather than help Firefox administrators.

“Multiple levels of permissions applied across different groups add a lot of complexity,” he said. “If you look at the track record for that feature, it’s resulted in less security for IE.”

But Hofmann, who oversees security and language localization development for Firefox in addition to helping run its enterprise-oriented efforts, acknowledged that users are clamoring for Mozilla to provide more enterprise tools. For example, on a public wiki maintained by Mozilla’s Firefox Enterprise Working Group, .MSI installers and better tools for preferences management top a new-features wish list.

Automated installers are relatively easy to create, and such a tool “might come sooner” from Mozilla than one for Active Directory would, Hofmann said. But he added that Mozilla has no plans to acquire or certify third-party tools or to set up a paid support business for corporate users.

Despite the success that open-source vendors such as Red Hat Inc. and MySQL AB have had in getting corporate users to sign paid support contracts, Hofmann contended that companies are starting to favor DIY support approaches on open-source technologies. “There’s a growing number of CIOs asking, ‘What is the value of a support contract? What are we getting out of it?'” he said.

Mozilla’s stance doesn’t surprise Kuo, who claimed that the organization is dominated by developers who would be unlikely to find the idea of starting an IT support business sexy.

Kuo added that he doesn’t think Mozilla will suddenly change its attitude and develop a browser deployment tool that could render FrontMotion obsolete. Mozilla “could create it themselves,” he said. “But it’s obviously not their priority.”

Michael Kaply, a senior software engineer at IBM who describes himself as a “Firefox advocate,” said that the open-source browser is currently being used by about 72,000 of the IT vendor’s 360,000 employees.

IBM wrote its own Firefox deployment software, but it doesn’t use any group policies to lock down or otherwise control the browser. “Our employees have full control of their machines,” Kaply wrote in an e-mail.

The company still runs some Web applications that work only with IE. But it is building in Firefox support, Kaply said. For example, a travel reservation app was recently switched to a cross-browser design. “That was a big hurdle,” he wrote.

However, in a posting on his personal blog last September, Kaply lamented that the number of participants on Firefox Enterprise Working Group conference calls had “dwindled.” And in an earlier posting, he said that he thought most of the large companies that had adopted Firefox were using it “as a secondary browser” only.

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