opinion In mid-2008, a government staffer at an employee town hall meeting being held by the US State Department got up to ask Secretary of State Hilary Clinton what appeared to be a rather unusual question for the venue. “Can you please let the staff use an alternative web browser called Firefox?” asked public affairs officer Jim Finkle.
“I just moved to the State Department from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and was surprised that State doesn’t use this browser.”
As a round of unexpected applause from State Department staff exploded around the room, Finkle pushed on. Like a seasoned journalist in the White House press gallery, he bluntly explained his rationale to one of the most powerful political figures in the world. “It was approved for the entire intelligence community,” he continued, “so I don’t understand why State can’t use it. It’s a much safer program.” A taken-aback Clinton didn’t seem to know how to react, according to the transcript available online. “Well, apparently there’s a lot of support for this suggestion,” she laughed, before passing the baton to departmental under-secretary Pat Kennedy.
To Clinton — and no doubt to many in the audience, the request must have seemed an odd one. Probably, the Secretary of State thought, there would be more important organisational matters which State Department employees could have raised with her in that very public venue. Questions of internal policy, problems of how to best implement government programs, even cross-jurisdictional issues between the State Department’s many far flung facilities. And indeed, other questions did touch on these areas.
But the Firefox question was clearly taken seriously by State at that point — with Kennedy going to great pains to respond to Finkle’s issue and confirming support for the upstart Mozilla browser. And despite the difficulty of mobilising any change in an organisation the size of Clinton’s department, the question did get resolved. In March this year, State announced it had rolled out not Firefox, but Google’s similarly advanced Chrome browser to 60 percent of its 100,000+ desktop PCs in a bid to give employees more browser options.
The root cause, of course, of Finkle’s complaint to Clinton was that he was being unnecessarily forced to use decade-old technology at work.
With the launch of Windows XP in late 2001, Microsoft for the first time successfully married the dramatically more stable operating system kernel it had fundamentally re-written for Windows NT, and matured with Windows 2000, with the consumer- and business-friendly features of its more mainstream operating system lines, which had their genesis from Windows 95, through 98 and then ME. Over time, XP would come to be so stable and popular that more than a decade later, every large Australian organisation would still be running it in some form, somewhere — and a huge amount are still running it on the majority of their staff desktop machines.
However, the ubiquity of XP also birthed what Valve Software would refer to as ‘unforeseen consequences’: It entrenched the bundled Internet Explorer 6 browser as a hideous web standard. With the one true desktop operating system came the one true web browser. And this standardised platform delivered a new era of corporate productivity as large organisations all over the globe developed a new-found enthusiasm for developing in-house applications delivered through a web browser.
But now the worm has turned; the snake is eating its own tail.
In their struggle to continue to support those internal applications, large organisations have proven extremely reluctant to upgrade their internal desktop standard operating environments to new versions of Internet Explorer and to completely ignore rival software platforms — leading to the kind of negative productivity, privacy and security outcomes which the launch of IE6 in 2001 hoped to avoid.
IE6’s strangehold over Australian organisations is no less strong than it is in the US. Westpac. The Australian Taxation Office. The Department of Defence. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia. And, of course, other government departments beyond count in Australia. All of these are organisations that have admitted over the past two years to still using version 6 of Internet Explorer. Some of them have started upgrading, but where they have, they have typically only upgraded to Internet Explorer 7 — which is nearly as bad.
The problems which IE6 suffers are obvious to anyone who has spent any time either using a web browser or developing a web site.
In the words of Microsoft itself, which has started an Internet Explorer 6 death watch page to try and kill off the Frankenstein monstrosity it birthed a decade ago: “The web has changed significantly over the past 10 years. The browser has evolved to adapt to new web technologies, and the latest versions of Internet Explorer help protect you from new attacks and threats.”
Beyond that, IE6 often just doesn’t work, in any practical sense. The browser’s lack of support for modern web standards means many modern web sites just don’t view correctly, or sometimes at all, when viewed with IE6.
Now, I understand why organisations have stuck with IE6 (and now, increasingly, IE7) for so long. It’s a no brainer. Faced with the choice of re-developing a core business application or replacing it completely, it is an easy choice to keep employees on a supported web browser rather than invest in a new system, which could be significantly expensive to deploy. When so many organisations have standardised so heavily on Microsoft software throughout their operations, any wholesale shift to a replacement web browsing platform is going to involve a lot of work which most of the top decision-makers will consider an unnecessary distraction from more important tasks.
However, what I don’t understand is why so few major organisations in Australia or globally have done what the US State Department has done and deployed a second web browser as a complement to that core Internet Explorer functionality.
In the consumer world, having a second or even third browser installed on your desktop PC is de rigeur. Any self-respecting geek wouldn’t be caught dead using an old version of IE at home, when the broadly faster, more stable and more capable Firefox and Chrome platforms are available, and I can distinctly remember the relief experienced by my older relatives when I installed one of these alternate browsers on their home PC half a decade ago. Suddenly, they told me, the Internet “just worked”. Funny, that.
Corporate workers are well aware of this trend, and the anger about the fact that it has not penetrated into many workplaces has often spilled out in public. The US State Department example is a good one, but in Australia there are also many government staffers (particularly high-powered ministerial advisors) who take their personal MacBooks into the office to get their work done on an everyday basis, only using their office PC when forced to interact with some arcane official system.
In the past, much of the rationale against alternative browsers in the workforce related to the idea that Internet Explorer was much more centrally manageable from an IT department’s perspective than Chrome or Firefox. You wouldn’t want to have a dozen versions of Firefox deployed around your organisation, the argument went; that would make it impossible to administer centrally when it came to security settings and minor upgrades. However, over the past few years this argument has become more and more irrelevant. Both Google and Mozilla have implemented centralised management strategies for their browsers which play well into the existing software administration strategies which are in play in IT departments.
When you take all of this into account, as well as the fact alternative browsers such as Chrome and Firefox are well … completely free to implement, and most people would find it trivial to use them alongside any version of IE (meaning there is no need to train staff to use something they probably already use at home), the lack of corporate rollouts of alternative browsers in Australia becomes somewhat mystifying.
The last time Delimiter touched on this topic, in September 2010, we found it very hard to find any major Australian organisation officially running anything other than Internet Explorer, apart from organisations like IBM and De Bortoli Wines, which have had a conscious philosophical preference for using open source software where possible. At the time, a spokesperson for the Australian Government Information Management Office (the central IT strategy group for the Federal Government) said that over 96 percent of government PCs used Internet Explorer, with Firefox boasting a share of just three percent. And Mozilla issued a blanket statement noting it wasn’t aware of any major rollouts in Australia.
Not much appears to have changed since then.
A false dichotomy
In my opinion, the greatest problem which alternative browsers face in attracting the interest of Australian IT managers is the belief that they’re not needed. When major Australian organisations set centralised IT policy for large workforces, they usually like to standardise on a discrete set of technologies which are easily deployed and maintained, popular amongst their peers and capable of performing more than one task, if possible. This trend can be seen in virtually every sphere in Australia’s enterprise IT sector.
In unified communications, organisations are increasingly standardising on Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya. In desktop software, Windows, Outlook/Exchange, Office and SharePoint. In network infrastructure, Cisco and HP ProCurve. Dell and HP on the desktop, SAP and Oracle for business applications, Telstra or Optus for telecommunications, VMware and sometimes Microsoft for virtualisation. EMC or NetApp for storage; and the list goes on in this vein.
What this means for alternate browsers is that many IT professionals believe the deployment of Internet Explorer in the enterprise means the ‘problem’ of which web browser to deploy on their organisations’ desktops has already been solved. Web browsers are the desktop software version of a Swiss Army Knife, the philosophy goes — able to perform virtually any task that they’re set to. You need only install one, and the world would come alive at your fingertips.
However, it should be obvious by now that this belief, like many beliefs common within specialised professions, represents a false dichotomy. When it comes to web browsers, Australian organisations should not be choosing one for their staff to use. Instead, they should choose several, as they are often used for different purposes. Rather than choosing to head left or right, IT managers should choose both simultaneously.
Right now, many Australian organisations are grappling with the so-called Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend, which is seeing employees seek permission to bring in their own personal technology (laptops, iPads, smartphones) from home for use at work, with a view to working more efficiently and achieving higher levels of productivity. In the microcosm of the web browser choice paradigm, we can see why this trend is currently so powerful and pervasive. IT professionals are too often blocking employees from access to harmless pieces of technology which would allow them to do their job better.
Too often, IT departments are asking the question “Why?” But increasingly, like humble public affairs staffer Jim Finkle questioning Hilary Clinton in front of her entire senior staff, the employees they are supposed to be serving are asking them: “Why not?”