Ask network manager Tom Gonzales about Firefox, an open-source browser
developed by the Mozilla Foundation, and he openly gushes about its
Gonzales says he swears by Firefox at home, in the office and for most of
his IT team. But ask him if he intends to roll it out to his users, and
he emphatically says ”no”.
Gonzales, senior network administrator at Colorado State Employees Credit
Union in Denver, Colo. is not convinced that Firefox is ready to displace
Microsoft Internet Explorer in the enterprise.
”I use it heavily. I loved it immediately,” he says. ”But it takes a
little more skill to use Firefox — a little more knowledge to
Gonzales says there would be a learning curve for his 170 users and more
than 70,000 credit union members to get used to Firefox’s features and
extensions like tabbed pages, integrated Internet search tools and
integrated RSS feeds. ”It’s not that tough, but it’s hard to push
something new on someone when it’s not their primary job. My users have
to be able to do their work and if I make it hard for them [by using a
different browser], that’s not good.”
Gonzales says Firefox would create help-desk headaches as many Web sites
are coded specifically for Internet Explorer.
”The primary reason that Firefox is not ready for prime time yet is that
people aren’t preparing their Web sites for it,” he says. Proprietary
features like Microsoft’s ActiveX controls don’t work with Firefox,
causing viewing problems.
Brian Schwartz, technology specialist at CDW Corp. in Vernon Hills, Ill.,
says Gonzales is not alone in his hesitancy to adopt Firefox.
”We’ve asked IT managers what their biggest concerns are and quite
specifically they say they have too many number one priorities from
[their executives],” he says. ”IT managers want other people to prove
[Firefox’s] worth first. They prize stability and performance, and their
users have very little patience to test out new things.”
He adds that IT managers are too busy to test the impact of Firefox on
their networks and applications. ”If there is any question about whether
Firefox could impact application performance, it’s probably not going to
make the list of items a large-scale IT organization would evaluate.”
The key, he says, is for Mozilla to show that Firefox offers something
that Internet Explorer doesn’t. ”IT managers aren’t looking to adopt new
stuff if they don’t have to,” he says.
Jim Linn agrees. As IT director at the American Gas Association in
Washington, D.C., Linn says he does not intend to roll out Firefox.
”Our standard has been Internet Explorer for better or worse,” he says.
”Although recent vulnerabilities have brought [Internet Explorer] into
question, we are staying the course.”
Linn says it’s important for IT groups to choose a path.
”We see the need to stay standardized — particularly on Microsoft
software. It all fits together neatly and works together well. Even for
my personal use and my technicians, I am running Internet Explorer.”
An Uphill Battle
When Firefox debuted last year, proponents of the browser touted its
security compared to the vulnerability-laden Internet Explorer. But over
the past few weeks, scrutiny has picked up about Firefox’s own security issues.
Security experts warn Firefox may be vulnerable to spyware. But these
problems are still not as worrisome to IT managers as those found in IE.
”Firefox has the advantage that it is not Microsoft
Windows-integrated,” says Joel Snyder, security expert and senior
partner at Opus One, a consultancy in Tucson, Ariz. ”Therefore, all the
‘wonderful’ hooks into Windows that Microsoft put into Internet Explorer,
which are ripe for exploitation, are missing.”
But Firefox is not bulletproof, he adds. ”This is not to suggest there
are no security vulnerabilities in Firefox, but they will not be so
easily exploited to gain control over the operating system.”
Even so, Firefox still faces an uphill battle.
”The challenge for a company making the move to Firefox might be any
stuff that is hard-wired to work only in Internet Explorer,” says Thomas
Powell, founder of Web development firm PINT in San Diego. ”For example,
some enterprise content management software, portals, etc. are only
written to support Internet Explorer.”
”The reality of Web-based applications is that most are poorly coded and
barely work on one browser, much less three or four different browsers,”
Snyder says. ”So people are most likely to code for Internet Explorer
because that has the largest market share.”
Striking a Balance
Some IT managers say they don’t have to choose.
Joanne Kossuth, CIO at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in
Needham, Mass., says with a little bit of preparation, IT groups can
offer their users both browsers.
”Supporting Firefox is not any more difficult than supporting Internet
Explorer,” Kossuth says.
Her IT group offers a dual-operating system laptop program that allows
students to switch between Linux and Microsoft Windows, and to download
the browsers they want to run with each. More than 50 percent of the
students have downloaded Firefox since it began being offered last year,
she says. In fact, it was her student advisory group that recommended
”The students drove the path to Firefox. Internet Explorer had
vulnerabilities out there and after doing some research, we found no
reason not to support Firefox,” she adds.
But Kossuth warns IT groups to be prepared. While Internet Explorer
offers automatic security updates, Firefox requires manual patching.
”You need to have communications with your users in place for this.
Educate your users about patching and security issues.”
She also recommends tracking versions of Firefox and its specifications.
”If you are using Linux, you have to make sure you’ve got the right
kernel. Match the specs to the operating system.”
It’s important to understand what users want to do with their browsers,
she says. ”Get input — a survey would be a good way to do that. Ask
them what they like about their browser and what they don’t.”
To avoid the help desk headaches that Gonzales fears, Kossuth advocates
training users how to use Firefox and how to solve problems they might
Kossuth also says IT managers should not try to limit user choice.
”Web browsing is a personal experience. Some people like tabbed
browsing, some don’t. Some will want to block pop-ups, some won’t. You’re
going to have a hard time prescribing just one browser,” she says.