Firefox finds cracking the corporate market a challenge

Boeing 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's Internet Explorer (IE) and a version of Netscape Navigator that is being sunsetted. Although Boeing hasn't deployed Firefox 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 percent share among visitors to thousands of Web sites monitored by WebSideStory. But there is scant evidence that Firefox is gaining broad acceptance at the corporate level.

In an e-mail poll conducted by Computerworld over the past two months, 86 percent 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 percent 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 poll, 70 percent 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 percent) said they use Firefox as their sole browser or in addition to others, such as IE, Safari or Opera. And 21 percent 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'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 5 percent of Northrop Grumman's employees use Firefox. He said that if the usage level creeps up to 10 percent, he might consider having the IT department support the browser.

In the meantime, Glennan is weighing the prospects of adding Firefox as an alternative standard in the event of a catastrophic problem with IE, or as an option for users who need to test code against Firefox. But there is no large-scale plan to push out multiple browsers on an enterprisewide basis.

Randy Kortering, global information systems integration director at Haworth in Michigan, said the office furniture maker considered Firefox because "Microsoft has a bull's-eye on it for malware writers," whereas the less widely deployed open-source browser gives them fewer potential victims. But in the end, Haworth's reliance on applications that use functionality in IE stopped it from moving past the consideration stage, he said.

Ron Cook, CTO at RadioShack in Texas, faces the same dilemma. Some of the retail chain's older internal Web sites rely on ActiveX controls that run only with Microsoft's browser. Using Firefox would require users to log on multiple times, Cook said.

Software updates are another issue. RadioShack uses Microsoft's Windows Update services, and if it switched to Firefox, IT would have to come up with a different update mechanism, Cook noted.

"Bottom line is that none of these [issues] are a big deal, and they can all be worked around, but I don't yet have enough demand to justify the effort of working through these," he said. "If Firefox continues to gain market share and my internal customers reach a critical mass of wanting an alternative, we would look at the possibility."

Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner, 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 center 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 center'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 percent 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 3 million intranet pages easier to search.

Askew said the next step will be looking at whether the company wants to deploy Firefox across its 57,000 desktops, likely under a dual-browser strategy, or focus only on the organizations that require multibrowser support. He expects a decision about the next phase to be made within eight months, in consultation with a technical steering committee.

If Fidelity does decide to deploy Firefox on an enterprisewide scale, that would buck the expected corporate pattern. The emergence of a feature-comparable IE7 will effectively "close the henhouse" to Firefox, said Craig Roth, a consultant at DiamondCluster International.

Gartner predicts that Firefox's share of the overall browser market will grow no higher than 30 percent by year's end and that its momentum will slow with the release of IE7. Valdes said IE7 likely will help IT managers who have considered adopting Firefox sleep better at night about their single-browser strategies.

Early Users Push Firefox Toward Enterprise Adoption

The IT research group at Fidelity Investments began looking at Firefox more than a year ago. But Fidelity's Mike Askew said it's only in the past few months that he has seen the open-source browser pick up the types of features that start to make it "enterprise-ready."

For instance, Askew, senior vice president of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, said the company wanted a binary patching mechanism to avoid the expense of deploying an entire new release every time a security or bug fix was made available for Firefox.

With Firefox 1.5, which became available in late November, Fidelity finally got its wish, culminating months of discussions and collaboration between the company and the Mozilla Foundation. Askew said employees from his group met with Mozilla representatives several times in Boston and California to work on the binary patching feature.

"They weren't an organization that was used to working with enterprises, so it was very much a learning experience on both sides," he said. "We're the enterprise standards systems organization [within Fidelity]. They're a foundation. But we came together and really worked well with each other."

Mozilla typically focuses on consumer features, figuring that partners such as IBM, Novell and Red Hat are its "best route to enterprise success" because they're more attuned to corporate needs, said Mike Shaver, a technology strategist at Mozilla, the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation's wholly owned development and distribution subsidiary.

IBM, for instance, has been leading the development of a Client Customization Kit (CCK) in an effort to help its own IT organization and IT shops at other large companies that want to deploy Firefox on a widespread basis. David Boloker, CTO for emerging Internet technology at IBM, said that some of the features in the CCK were the result of feedback from five or six companies that are already using a Version 0.8 beta release of the tool to produce custom configurations of Firefox.

"This is a big deal for anybody that is going to deploy [Firefox] in numbers," said Scott Vesey, Web browser component manager at Boeing. "Prior to this, if you wanted to do any customization, it was basically 'roll your own.' And the roll-your-own techniques would only get you partway there, so you had to jump through hoops if you were doing a robust corporate deployment."

Vesey said he wrote his own C++ code in the absence of the CCK and warned Mozilla that most IT departments wouldn't go to the trouble of creating custom tools to deploy Firefox. But the CCK won't be helpful to Boeing just yet. Although Vesey said the tool is usable in its present form, it's available only with Firefox 1.5. Boeing's current corporate standard for Firefox is Version 1.07, he noted.

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