Firefox targets the enterprise

The Boeing Co. has been discreetly providing feedback to the Mozilla Foundation for the past year or so on features that might encourage enterprise adoption of the open-source Firefox browser. At the top of the list has been a tool kit to help IT departments distribute Firefox with custom configurations to end-users.

The Chicago-based aerospace company had good reason to express interest in such a tool. Last August, Boeing made Firefox one of its corporate Web browser standards alongside Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer (IE) and a version of Netscape Navigator that is being sunsetted. Although Boeing hasn’t deployed Firefox on a wide-scale and couldn’t provide an estimate of the browser’s usage within the company, the corporate standard decision sets it apart from most of its peers.

An ongoing pilot project at Fidelity Investments sets the financial services firm apart as well. The Fidelity Center for Applied Technology has spent more than a year exploring the enterprise readiness of Firefox and working behind the scenes with Mozilla to improve the browser’s patching mechanism. Fidelity is now rolling out Firefox 1.5 to 1,900 users, primarily in IT, to kick off the project’s third phase.

Such a formal pilot puts Fidelity in rare company. Statistics show that Firefox has chipped away at IE’s dominance — for example, the open-source browser is nearing a 10 per cent share among visitors to thousands of Web sites monitored by WebSideStory Inc. But there is scant evidence that Firefox is gaining broad acceptance at the corporate level.

In an e-mail poll conducted by Computerworld (U.S.) over the past two months, 86 per cent of the 105 IT managers who responded listed IE as the sole browser standard at their companies. Only seven of the respondents reported having a multibrowser or non-Microsoft standard, and among those who did, the purpose generally was to support non-Windows desktop systems.

Mozilla officials, at least publicly, have been hard-pressed to point to any corporation that has broadly adopted Firefox — except IBM, a technical and financial contributor to the open-source project. IBM announced last year that it would offer Firefox as an option to its 330,000 users. So far, 18 per cent have added the browser or its Mozilla predecessor to their systems, IBM said.

Despite the dearth of usage, there are signs that many IT managers welcome the challenge that Firefox is posing to Microsoft’s ironclad grip on the browser market. In the Computerworld (U.S.) poll, 70 per cent of the respondents said that Firefox is having a positive effect on the IT industry, and many said they were pleased to see that the heightened competition is pushing Microsoft to make improvements in IE 7.0, which is due later this year.

Nearly half of the respondents (45 per cent) said they use Firefox as their sole browser or in addition to others, such as IE, Safari or Opera. And 21 per cent said their IT departments have added support for Firefox.

But as much as they say they like competition and choice, few of the IT managers are taking action to deploy the open-source software on a formal or widespread basis.

Keith Glennan, Northrop Grumman Corp.’s chief technology officer, said he has often thought that the Los Angeles-based company should run Firefox instead of IE as its default browser. Glennan uses Firefox at home and especially likes its printing and tabbed browsing capabilities and its ease of navigation. But when he thinks about giving the browser to Northrop Grumman’s 115,000 users, the decision boils down to economics.

“People say they want to have a healthier option in fast-food restaurants, but then they buy Big Macs,” Glennan said. “Maybe it’s the same effect. I like the idea of Firefox, and I like using it, but it’s not such a big deal to me that it drives me to demand something different. Clearly, Microsoft has a huge installed-base advantage here, and it’s hard to overcome.”

Glennan estimated that five per cent of Northrop Grumman’s employees use Firefox. He said that if the usage level creeps up to 10 per cent, he might consider having the IT department support the browser.

Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said that wholesale replacements of IE aren’t a realistic possibility, since most organizations are too dependent on it for their Web pages, internally developed applications, commercial software packages and even the tools they use to administer their infrastructures. Nonetheless, for years, Gartner has advised its clients to either strive for a browser-agnostic strategy or adopt a multibrowser environment.

Those approaches give companies more flexibility to take advantage of innovations, make them less vulnerable to security exploits and help ensure that their Web pages and applications will run in browsers other than IE, Valdes said.


The latter reason is what drove Boeing to add Firefox to its list of corporate browser standards. Scott Vesey, the company’s Web browser component manager, said Boeing placed a high priority on conformance to World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards and, during its evaluation, found that Firefox did a better job of supporting certain standards than IE did. So Boeing decided to make the open-source browser available by request to any employee, division or regional unit that has a need for it, although IE will remain the only browser installed by default on all of the company’s Windows-based computers.

“We’re trying to aim for browser-neutral Web applications, so having a Web browser that’s more conformant with W3C specifications is a step in the right direction,” Vesey said. “If you’re creating Web applications that are interoperable between IE and Firefox, the chances of getting caught in a legacy trap are diminished.”

At Fidelity, the impetus for evaluating Firefox came from new features, such as tabbed browsing, that impressed staffers at the Center for Applied Technology, which identifies emerging technologies that might be useful across the enterprise. The centre also works to build relationships with key vendors and open-source groups, and it placed Mozilla in that category.

In addition, Firefox’s Netscape pedigree gave the technology research group reason to think it would be an important piece of software, said Mike Askew, the centre’s senior vice-president.

Fidelity launched Phase 1 of its Firefox pilot project in the second quarter of last year with 50 users who oversee public-facing Web sites. When they reacted positively, the company upped the user count to 300 for Phase 2, incorporating its “standard build process” to package the browser for distribution, Askew said.

With Phase 3, Fidelity will expand its compatibility checks to include intranet sites and internal applications, about 20 per cent of which require tuning to work on multiple browsers, according to Askew.

IE has been Fidelity’s browser standard for at least eight years, and some internal sites make use of ActiveX components. Fidelity also will be looking to improve tagging to make its nearly three million intranet pages easier to search.

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