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  • Featured, Features - Written by on Thursday, September 30, 2010 12:24 - 33 Comments

    Desktop dictatorship: Corporate Australia still prefers IE

    feature If you ask any Australian technology professional which web browser they prefer, you’ll get a plethora of different answers. The debate about browser preferences is as fiery as the one about desktop operating systems.

    And each has its supporters. Some prefer Firefox for its open source nature, the rapid pace of its development and the sheer number of available plugins that can extend its functionality. Some prefer Google’s Chrome for its speed and the stability generated by keeping each tab in its own memory envelope.

    Still others remain hardcore fans of the Norwegian Opera browser due to its incredible feature list and speed. And of course, Apple’s own Safari browser — based on much of the same code as Chrome — retains fans, especially on the Mac OS X platform, but also a small user base on Windows.

    What you won’t find, however, when you ask this question in Australia’s technology sector, is many people who profess to love Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

    It was long-term criticism of Internet Explorer’s non-standards-compliant features, bugs and lack of development, after all, that led to the explosion in the popularity of alternatives throughout the past half-decade. And despite rapid improvements in the browser’s capabilities since that time, many technology enthusiasts still maintain bad memories of the software.

    And yet there is one place in Australia that Internet Explorer remains firmly entrenched, with barely any rivals to challenge its virtual monopoly: On the desktops of the nation’s large business and government entities.

    The central agency in the Federal Government responsible for setting overarching technology policy is the Australian Government Information Management Office within the Department of Finance and Deregulation.

    Questioned recently about browser choice in the Federal public sector, a departmental spokesperson laid out a stark fact. “Over 96 percent of Australian Government personal computers use Internet Explorer as the web browser,” they said. Firefox is used by just over three percent of Federal Government desktops, while Chrome, Safari and Opera together have a share of just 0.25 percent.

    And it gets worse — often those desktops aren’t even running the latest version of Internet Explorer. In June this year, one of Australia’s largest departments, Defence, confirmed it would upgrade its 90,000 desktop PCs from version 6 to version 7 of Internet Explorer — almost four years after the software was first released.

    At the time, a Defence spokesperson said the department continued to look at alternate browsers, but the current upgrade to IE7 was to maintain compatibility for applications built on IE. “Defence does not allow staff to install their own software including desktop browsers on Defence networks,” they added. “This restriction allows Defence to support the desktop environment and to manage security and vulnerability patches.”

    It’s a similar situation in the private sector.

    Ask any employee who’s worked for large corporations in Australia and you’ll hear a string of stories about how they had to petition their IT department repeatedly to get an alternate browser installed — usually because they don’t have administrative privileges on their Windows XP machine.

    It was only February this year that the Commonwealth Bank of Australia told staff that it would shortly be upgrading to IE7. The key factor holding the bank back over the past four years? The need to test a plethora of applications for compatibility with the new version before the rollout took place.

    Even the makers of Firefox themselves display somewhat of a lack of confidence in the ability of large local organisations to deploy their browser en-masse. “We are not aware of any big Firefox rollouts happening in Australia,” says a Mozilla spokesperson when asked about the issue recently.

    Light on the hill
    Despite the apparent lack of interest in alternative browsers from large organisations in Australia, however, there are some examples of local corporate rollouts that have taken place.

    De Bortoli Wines — which has developed a reputation for the innovative use of technology over the years — standardised on Firefox in 2004 for all of its corporate desktops — both Linux and Windows. The company now also includes Chrome with its machines, with the group’s IT manager Bill Robertson citing the Google browser’s increased rendering performance on sites such as Google’s Apps online office suite.

    The executive says De Bortoli did experience some issues early on with web sites that were only supported in Internet Explorer. “But this is much less of an issue now, with Firefox support becoming fairly mainstream,” he says.

    In fact, now the shoe is on the other foot, with De Bortoli now developing and deploying services that rely on new standards such as HTML5 — which Robertson says are not deployable with the current versions of IE. Version 9 of the browser, which is currently in beta, does support more of HTML5, however.

    With Firefox having initially been targeted at individual PCs, in the past some have compared the Mozilla offering unfavourably to Internet Explorer, which benefits from the enterprise manageability features found across the Microsoft operating systems. However, Robertson says he believes all the major browsers were currently “much the same” in terms of enterprise supportability.

    “Luckily, the majority of our desktops are single image Linux — so maintaining Firefox and Chrome on these devices is not a major concern for us,” he says. “Our bigger issues are standards compliance and multi-operating system and multi-platform support.”

    For a greenfields site such as a startup, Robertson recommends both Firefox and Chrome be deployed. “They both have their particular strengths (Compatibility, performance, and features) and while the Internet has become quite critical to business its still an evolving story,” he says.

    Another major organisation which has deployed Firefox widely is IT services, software and hardware giant IBM, which announced in July this year that Firefox had become its default browser.

    The company’s Australian chief information officer Steve Godbee, who is responsible for internal IT operations, says going back a few years IBM had been predominantly using Internet Explorer, but Firefox had been organically adopted by its staff.

    Adopting Firefox sat perfectly with the company’s broad support for open standards, he said.

    The new official browser hasn’t been rolled out across IBM’s Australian operations en-masse though, Godbee says. Instead, the software is installed by default on new workstations and laptops that are issued, and it was more a matter of encouraging staff to use it internally if they weren’t already.

    Security updates and patches for Firefox are pushed out across the whole company as part of IBM’s standard internal software update process, and users will have the choice to install patches later if they’re not critical, or mandated to install them immediately if they are.

    Going back a few years, Godbee says, there were some internal applications which used Internet Explorer which didn’t support Firefox. But as time has gone by, they have broadly been updated to support the alternative browser.

    And even if some still had problems, it wouldn’t be that big of an issue — Godbee points out that within Firefox there’s an option to use an emulator plugin to use Internet Explorer’s rendering engine within the Mozilla application — delivering complete compatibility.

    Despite Firefox being anointed as IBM’s official browser, however, employees don’t have to use it. “Personal preference isn’t stopped,” says Godbee, noting that staff can still use Chrome and other browsers.

    Godbee compares the organic growth of Firefox to that of Linux on server platforms. Instant messaging also grew like a virus within IBM — and the same with the changing face of the mobile phones used by staff. More staff use Nokia devices than any other handset, but BlackBerry also has a presence, and of course the new iPhone and Android platforms are making headway as well.

    Ultimately, Godbee says, supporting staff is increasingly about building applications that are operating system-independent — desktop platforms that are based on cloud computing, for example.

    The future
    It has long been speculated at by technology sector pundits that one of the reasons that open source platforms such as Firefox have not been adopted broadly within large organisations in Australia is because of the difficulty of structuring standard procurement arrangements to include what is essentially free software.

    The spokesperson from the Department of Finance and Deregulation said in terms of the public sector, each agency had to make up their own mind. “An agency’s decision to choose a particular browser is based on value for money, including the browser’s interaction with the agency’s existing operating environment, rather than just the capability of the browser,” they said.

    The Australian Government Information Management Office does not provide guidance to agencies on the choice of web browser.

    But with consumer technologies increasingly making their way into large organisations, in a trend that analysts have dubbed “consumerisation” of the enterprise, it may be that IT directors don’t end up with much of a choice, as Generation Y brings its own hardware, software and — ultimately — browser preferences, into their new employee’s organisation.

    And consumer demand for Firefox in particular is strong.

    According to data provided by Mozilla, as at August this year, there were about 1.8 million average daily users of Firefox in Australia, as well as 652,000 Australian downloads of the software that month.

    That’s a sizable chunk, when you realise that total global average daily users of Firefox at the same time was about 114 million. In short, roughly 1.5 percent of total Firefox users globally are Australian. And the number is growing. As at August 2009, there were 1.6 million average Australian daily users of Firefox. That figure was much smaller — 1.2 million — in August 2008. In other words, although IE is still the dominant force, Firefox is a strong challenger, with Chrome and then Safari coming up behind.

    IBM CIO Godbee compares his company’s adoption of Firefox to the way that the similarly open source Linux operating system gained traction on servers around the world over the past several decades since it was first released.

    “Over a period of time it has been organic,” he says. “And suddenly there is it is, on a wide scale.”

    Image credits: Dilip Patharachalam, Kit MacAllister, Creative Commons

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    1. Posted 30/09/2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I love IE as long as the version number is 9.

    2. Posted 30/09/2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

      haven’t read the whole article yet, but we still use IE here because it has better compatibility with how things are implemented/run here and with the apps we use.

      • Posted 30/09/2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

        Interesting — what apps do you use? I haven’t found anything that doesn’t work with Firefox and Chrome for a looong time. I’m not saying IE isn’t improving — it is — but I prefer Chrome at this point.

        • Posted 30/09/2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

          There either in house apps that have been around for years or apps by Fuijitsu and other vendors. Some apps we’ve got here only work on IE6 and has halted the IE8 rollout to these areas.

        • ML Atkin
          Posted 30/09/2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink | Reply

          I tried Chrome in the early days – actually, SWIron, the supposedly de-Googled version – but I didn’t like the way it made an SSL connection to Google servers when I logged into another SSL-enabled site. Haven’t touched it since.

          • Posted 30/09/2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

            Urgh — I didn’t know it did that. I like it because it’s faster and more lightweight than Firefox when you have 40+ tabs open like I usually do. I will have to investigate that.

        • Posted 30/09/2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

          IE is an interesting beast. There are certainly applications that work better in IE than other browser, but I suspect that is more about Microsoft feathering their own nest – (which they have every right to do) – rather than out and out incompatibility.

          Exchange Outlook Web Access springs immediately to mind – in Firefox, Chrome, Safari for example, it looks like a standard web mail client. In IE, it is a very close match to the native Outlook client, with all the drag and drop, and preview panes, etc that you’d come to expect from a desktop application.

          For all intents and purposes, it functions EXACTLY like Outlook.

          Yet hit it with any other browser – including those which have better extensibility – and you get the cut down experience. IE is not a “bad” browser, it is just that Microsoft uses its wedge into the market to make it more compelling to corporate/government players.

          • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

            I think Microsoft has upgraded Outlook Web Access in the latest versions of Exchange to run much better on alternative browsers.

        • Joe IT
          Posted 23/11/2010 at 3:37 am | Permalink | Reply

          I can tell you that things like older versions of WebSense interfaces have issues with non-IE browsers. HPs iLO integrated remote console will not run on anything other than IE.

    3. ML Atkin
      Posted 30/09/2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Organisations that based their choices around a closed and non-standard application such as IE6 are now paying the price for it. Lock-in to any proprietary system is a bitch.

      I’d be surprised if IBM didn’t make Firefox available to their users as they are a major sponsor of Mozilla.

      It’s worth remembering, however, that there are very good reasons why users aren’t allowed to install their choice of software on a corporate network. Ask any sysadmin and you’ll get the same reply: support, licencing, compatibility, cost, training and security.

      • Posted 30/09/2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

        Absolutely – it is about support, licensing, compatibility, etc…but that’s the same whichever browser you choose.

        You start with a list of all your web applications required for the business, if Firefox ticks all the boxes, you might choose it. If Chrome ticks all the boxes, you might go that way. If IE does all the right things, you might go that way.

        Once you make your selection, you still have to support it, license it (if applicable), deal with the cost, train people on it, and maintain security. That doesn’t change.

        But because Microsoft has the massive wedge into the organisations and departments of the world, all they have to do is do some custom work to make it more suitable for corporate applications that their customers are LIKELY to have – (see my Exchange Outlook Web Access example above) – and they become the browser most likely to tick all the boxes in that corporate environment.

        In that way, the pluses and minuses of the other options don’t overcome the fact that IE is most likely to suit their corporate needs – but that doesn’t mean IE is a better browser – it’s just better placed in the corporate landscape than anything else.

        • ML Atkin
          Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

          “Absolutely – it is about support, licensing, compatibility, etc…but that’s the same whichever browser you choose.”

          True if you are choosing just one browser but Renai’s piece was about user choice which means the network could end up with half a dozen different browsers. They all need support, compatibility, training and security although licencing obviously isn’t an issue for FLOSS browsers. Six browsers is more work than one.

          It’s interesting that this debate is rarely about applications other than browsers. I’ve never heard of a user asking for a different word processor, for example.

          • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

            Yeah, but in a corporate environment, it is the administrator that is going to choose the standard browser, not the end user.

            The moment non-standard software is introduced to the SOE, you can no longer guarantee that everything else is going to work exactly as it is designed to do, because a single version change to a DLL the new piece of software installs, might break a standard piece of software that can’t deal with the new DLL.

            That’s why you lock them down to not being able to install stuff willy nilly.

            • ML Atkin
              Posted 30/09/2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

              “Yeah, but in a corporate environment, it is the administrator that is going to choose the standard browser, not the end user.”

              Mostly, yes, that’s the case. The network that my wife inherited was a pile of no-name machines and an intranet that needed a VB programmer to make the simplest of changes. IE6 was the only browser that worked with it. She’s since rebuilt both the network and the intranet from the ground up but it took a long time.

              “The moment non-standard software is introduced to the SOE, you can no longer guarantee that everything else is going to work exactly as it is designed to do, because a single version change to a DLL the new piece of software installs, might break a standard piece of software that can’t deal with the new DLL.”

              Agreed. A decent test environment can save a lot of grief.

              “That’s why you lock them down to not being able to install stuff willy nilly.”

              She’s been close to supergluing the USB ports at times and you’d be amazed at how many new staff ask for admin rights. They usually say “I had admin rights at my last company” to which my wife asks “how stable was the network?”. Cue sheepish-faced drone :)

      • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

        “It’s worth remembering, however, that there are very good reasons why users aren’t allowed to install their choice of software on a corporate network. Ask any sysadmin and you’ll get the same reply: support, licencing, compatibility, cost, training and security.”

        My question is, does the ability to lock down corporate networks outweigh the productivity benefits and staff morale of being able to set up their own system the way you want it? Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with providing a set of standardised corporate tools (including IE, for example), and then allowing staff to self-admin a set of their own tools which are seen as quite harmless.

        How, for example, is blocking things like Firefox, instant messaging clients, Skype, and so on, going to benefit a business? You’re locking your staff out of all the things they need to be most effective at communicating with their peers across the industry.

        • ML Atkin
          Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink | Reply

          “My question is, does the ability to lock down corporate networks outweigh the productivity benefits and staff morale of being able to set up their own system the way you want it?”

          My question is, does allowing staff to install software that may possibly put the network out of commission for even a few hours outweigh the productivity benefits of choice?

          “Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with providing a set of standardised corporate tools (including IE, for example), and then allowing staff to self-admin a set of their own tools which are seen as quite harmless.”

          It all costs money and I would imagine that trying to persuade senior management that the extra costs involved are worthwhile.

          “How, for example, is blocking things like Firefox, instant messaging clients, Skype, and so on, going to benefit a business? You’re locking your staff out of all the things they need to be most effective at communicating with their peers across the industry.”

          Because they get used for non-work related purposes. One example. My wife (a sysadmin) was called to solve a problem with one user’s PC. His browsing history was chock full of visits to dating sites during working hours. She later checked the logs for his machine and his usage was greater than the next 20+ people combined. That isn’t productivity.

          It’s not as though she’s a Hitlerian admin either. There is a dedicated machine set up in the tea room for non-work stuff. It’s separate to the network and rebuilds itself from an image file each morning. Seems a fair compromise to me.

        • Posted 30/09/2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

          The way to tackle that one is through a development cycle. It’s poxy and annoying, but in a corporate environment where you want to maintain consistency across desktops – (see my DLL example above) – you can’t just let them go hell for leather.

          If users require specialised software, that’s fine – but you have to allow the administrators to explore and test that application against the standard suite of applications they make available – even a slight shift of the goal posts can create a support nightmare.

          A good example was a Japanese Windows 95 user – (god I’m old) – at a certain Japanese automotive manufacturer that begins with a “T” – we’d roll the standard desktop image onto his machine, and he’d promptly install the stuff he “needed”, then ring the next morning to complain that his machine “which worked perfectly yesterday, doesn’t work anymore”.

          We got so sick of re-imaging his machine, that we did it for the last time, told him that if he wants to install his crap again, we take no more responsibility for it.

          He didn’t install it again.

    4. Belle
      Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Could it be something to do with the fact that in a large microsoft environment, it is easier to control the settings of IE via tools such as group policy.

      • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

        But what kind of settings does IE have that need to be controlled via group policy?

        • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

          More than you might realise. Proxy settings, home page settings, security levels, blah blah blah…basically any option that you can set in the browser, can be set with Group Policy.

          • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

            Yes, but does it really matter if these things are set or not? Does it matter what home page staff boot up to? And proxy settings can be controlled at a network level, they don’t have to be done through the browser. And security? Since when has security been any form of issue with Firefox? It’s IE that is the security nightmare, usually.

            • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink | Reply

              It can, very much so.

              Lets take a proxy setting for example. Yes, you can force proxy at a network level, but if you’re not setting it via group policy, and the proxy setting has to change, do you want to be the poor sod changing 90,000 browsers within Defence for example?

              A proxy server fails, and you have to redirect people to a new one – far easier to change the setting in Group Policy, and sending out an email telling people to reboot to regain internet access.

              Home page setting – agree, most probably don’t force that one, but I’ve seen plenty of instances of having them locked to corporate intranets as the home page – it gets down to policy – nobody says the policy has to be sane, but policies that can be enforced create less headaches down the road.

              • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

                This perfectly illustrates the problem with this approach. Firstly, it’s a silly idea to set proxy servers at the desktop level. This sort of stuff is best done transparency at the network level at the moment — to do it on the desktop makes no sense.

                Secondly … why lock people into looking at the corporate intranet? They will grow to hate it after a while when they have to wait for it to load every time they open a browser. A much better approach would be to a push approach through email or internal IM if you want to push out corporate messages — rather than tinker with their browsing experience.

                • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

                  Corporate intranet – once again, agree completely. Rightly or wrongly, it does happen. Not a policy I would enforce, but…meh, bureaucrats!

                  Agree also with the proxy thing – and it is probably for legacy reasons more than anything else that it is still supported that way – but there are sooooooo many different flavours of proxy, and soooooo many different ways of implementing them, that you do sometimes need it.

                  Specific hardware failures, particularly in a virtualised world can leave proxies separated from physical network routes, creating a need to potentially change the settings, if only temporarily. More than anything, it is handy to be able to change it – just in case “easier” contingencies fail.

                  From a personal perspective, any network that’s designed that way – (and I have seen them) – is more trouble than it’s worth, and yes – simplest is best!

      • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

        Sure – but there are similar tools for most browsers – (less integrated than Group Policy) – but achieve the same results ultimately.

        • Posted 30/09/2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

          Precisely — like the one that IBM is using. The Microsoft tools aren’t the only ones …

    5. Evan
      Posted 01/10/2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink | Reply

      We are a 250 user Mac network with about 130 computers, based in NSW, we have standardised on Firefox for years.

      • Posted 01/10/2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink | Reply

        Would that be the NSW RTA, Evan? I asked them for comment for this story but got bounced around between departments :( I wasn’t sure if they still used Firefox.

        • Evan
          Posted 01/10/2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink | Reply

          No not RTA. We’re a not for profit organisation. If you want more info then email me ( if you have access to the hidden email address) or give me your email address and I’ll contact you.

    6. Posted 01/10/2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

      what is ie? seem to remember it, before I went back to the mac. great thing about the apples, no ie in sight. safari is far more versatile, and is ok with being set as a secondary browser…

      • Douglas
        Posted 14/10/2010 at 12:28 am | Permalink | Reply

        I’d love to know when the last time you used Windows was, but IE9 beta and IE8 before that were more than happy to be ignored and unloved while I used Chrome day in, day out, on Windows 7.

        The only times I can think of when IE wanted to be used for no good reason is when PowerDVD calls a web browser (always IE, probably set up that way), and after installing IE9, Expression Web used that as it’s default preview browser for some reason.

    7. Microsoft is old and boring
      Posted 01/10/2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Corporate men are just old, fat, stupid and need some update. Using IE-browser is almost as silly as using that Microsoft Windows OS. Tell me a corporate big shot preferin IE-whatever and i’ll tell you that person is just an idiot.

    8. Microsoft is old and boring
      Posted 01/10/2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

      In many european countries Firefox is the most popular browser. Have been a long time. Australia is hardly a big open source country. Most of the english speaking countries actually are the really badly locked in Microsoft ecosystem. You should know it.

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