Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why we care what Web browser you use. Or, "It's not our fault. Blame the browser developers."

"I don't like Internet Explorer, why can't I use Firefox?"

It's a comment we often hear in the Desktop Admin world. The short answer is, "it's not a good product for business." Now, wait a minute before you go typing up that angry comment, Mr. Fanboy. I know what you're going to say, so let me explain myself.

Desktop Admins are tasked with a variety of duties that all pretty much boil down to one concept; to provide our company's employees with the tools and infrastructure necessary for them to do their jobs while safeguarding company information. That's it. Everything we do is aimed at acheiving that goal. There are some ancillary considerations such as reducing calls to the helpdesk and helping to ensure job productivity (there'll be another post on that topic sometime) but for the most part we want to provide you with a safe, stable product that does what you expect it to do.

I'm going to pick on Firefox but rest assured, Safari, Chrome, and Opera are all equally guilty. If you want to have a discussion about which browser is "better" we can, but that's not what I'm arguing. It's not really a question of functionality, ease of use, page rendering speed, or additional features, it's a question of whether the product is

*wooop wooop* BUZZ-WORD ALERT *wooop wooop*


At home, you are responsible for one, two, or even three computers. In this environment, keeping up with browser settings and security patches is simple. In a corporate environment, where there may be 10,000 or more computers (in the very largest corporations, you're looking at numbers closer to 100,000+) it becomes a daunting task. Firefox out of the box is plenty secure, but let's play a game I like to call "The One-Percent that Ruins it for Everyone Else."

We'll use an example of 10,000 computers - one person per computer. If one percent of people think that Myspace is completely trustworthy and lower the security settings because that funny video someone sent them an email telling them to watch is giving an error, that's 100 computers that just got a virus (I use the term generically). 100 computers out of 10,000. That's not too bad, but some of these people will have access to confidential information. Let's say, financial. The virus sends all of that information back to the virus writer while emailing copies of itself to everyone in the company address book, this time pretending to be a Hallmark E-Card. One percent open it. This is not the same one percent, though there may be a little overlap. Now he gets even more information and sends it again under a different guise. Do you see where I'm going?

The problem is that Firefox doesn't have any way for me to protect the ninety-nine percent from the one-percent. You can configure settings automatically during the installation, but there's no way to keep someone from changing those settings. Automatic updates is another example.

Anybody that uses Firefox can disable automatic updates. Why? Why would anybody turn that off? Because now Firefox launches faster. I just saved 1 second of my time every time I launch the browser. WOOO. There's also no easy way for us to tell remotely whether those updates are disabled. What this means is that every time a security patch comes out, we have to make sure that it gets installed on every machine that has Firefox. This is a process that consumes our time along with the time of the team that actually installs the updates. Time that could be much better spent working on providing you with a better overall computer experience. For example, testing and deploying new communication tools that could make your lives much easier gets put to the side because Firefox needs an update.

The same argument can be made from the opposite point of view. For stability's sake, I may want to carefully control what updates get installed. Let's say we have a web-based application that is critical to our business functioning; dollars don't come in if it doesn't work. We want to test this application with any updates prior to pushing them out to the workstations. The problem is that I can turn automatic updates off during the installation, but can't keep anybody from turning them back on. This brings us to the central point of this whole discussion, management.

Internet Explorer, for all of its faults, has one thing dramatically in its favor that is THE reason that it has the highest corporate market-share. No, Conspiracy-Girl. It has nothing to do with Microsoft being a giant, evil monopoly that has pushed out its competition with threats and intimidation (that discussion is for another post). It's because it can be centrally managed through Group Policy. Are you listening, Mozilla? I know, I know. There are 3rd party products that add this functionality. If you want corporate adoption on a wide scale (Firefox does have some cool functionality that may be a benefit to companies), you need to make this an integrated part of Firefox, or at least a supported additional product from Mozilla. We shouldn't have to layer multiple products from different vendors risking the possibility of support issues just to get your product rolled out.

So that's about it. If your company won't let you use Firefox (or any other non-Microsoft browser), blame the browser not the geek in IT.

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