IT Dabbles With Firefox, but Few Plan to Switch From IE

The Firefox Web browser has been causing a commotion among users and snaring snippets of market share from Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer since June -- long before Version 1.0 of the open-source software was officially released earlier this month.

But statistics suggest that corporate users aren't the major group fueling the growth of Firefox. The new browser's most dramatic spikes in usage are on weekends, according to Chris Hoffman, director of engineering at the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation, which developed Firefox.

That observation was borne out by an e-mail poll of IT managers conducted last week by Computerworld. Only two of the 25 respondents said their organizations have standardized on Firefox. Another 11 said they have tried Firefox or use it on a personal basis. But 17 said that their companies have no current plans to re-evaluate their decisions to go with Internet Explorer.

"We've been standardized on Microsoft Internet Explorer for as long as we've had a standard," said Patricia Coffey, an assistant vice president in IT at Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill. "Basically, we run Microsoft on the desktop as our standard, so we use IE, Office, Outlook, etc."

Allstate's "big gripe ... is the security issues with Microsoft," Coffey said. But she added that the insurer is content with IE from a features standpoint.

Security is the reason why Jefferson County in Colorado ordered its 2,000 government workers to switch to Firefox about five months ago, said David Gallaher, the county's director of IT development. Gallaher said he came to view IE as "a VDS -- a virus distribution system."

"It's hazardous to your corporate health," said Gallaher. "You have to turn off everything that makes Internet Explorer interesting just to avoid the impact of the viruses. Even Microsoft employees have told us, 'You should turn off ActiveX controls.' "

Jefferson County ran the beta version of Firefox and is moving to Version 1.0. Gallaher said the migration has gone well, except for components in a few applications that don't yet support Firefox, including the county's enterprise document management system. But he said the application vendors have indicated that they will fix the problems.

Mark's Work Wearhouse Ltd., a Calgary, Alberta-based retail chain, encountered Firefox support problems with the Web sites of some of its suppliers and business partners, according to CIO Robin Lynas. For example, the pages on a courier company's site wouldn't render properly with the new browser. But the courier has since fixed the problem, Lynas said.

Those glitches haven't deterred Mark's Work Wearhouse from standardizing on Firefox as the underlying browser for its in-store systems. Lynas said the decision was a natural one, since the retailer's cash registers already run Linux.

Joe Hartman, an application development manager at HydroChem Industrial Services Inc. in Deer Park, Texas, said he has used Firefox exclusively at home for about six months. He said that he would like to recommend that HydroChem switch to Firefox because he's concerned about IE's security as well as Microsoft's lack of "significant development on IE since Version 4."

"It now appears IE may well be on its way to becoming a second-class browser," he said.

What's making Hartman hesitant to recommend the switch to Firefox is the company's investment in Microsoft's Dynamic HTML technology for its intranet applications.

Feature Attraction

One alluring feature in Firefox is a tabbed browsing capability, which Internet Explorer lacks. Tabbed browsing allows users to load pages from multiple sites without having to open a new browser window for each one. The tabs make it easier to switch back and forth between the sites.

The feature is "real handy," said Gallaher, adding, "What has Microsoft done with IE for the last few years? They've ignored it."

Gary Schare, a director of product management at Microsoft, disputed that assertion. He claimed that Microsoft continues to make major investments in Internet Explorer, including significant security enhancements that were part of Windows XP Service Pack 2. Schare added that Microsoft partners and independent software vendors are developing add-ons for IE and even complete browsers with tabbed browsing capabilities built on top of it.

Carroll Pleasant, a systems associate at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn., said his company is sticking with Internet Explorer as its standard browser. "Nothing else is practical for us," he said. "We have a significant number of internal systems that are dependent on IE."

Ping Inc. also plans to continue using Internet Explorer, said David Chacon, a technical services manager at the Phoenix-based maker of golf equipment. But Firefox "has really raised the bar on functionality and usability," Chacon said. "I hope Microsoft is taking notes."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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