Just as Internet users in general have defected in huge numbers from Microsoft Internet Explorer over the past several years, the business world, as well, is becoming less dependent on the venerable browser.
Companies that used to mandate the use of IE for access to web resources are beginning to embrace a far more heterodox attitude toward web browsers. While it hasn't gone away, the experience of having to use IE 6 to access some legacy in-house web app is becoming less common.
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"Things have changed a lot in the last three years, and I think a lot of it has to do with the emergence of the modern web and the popularity of mobile. They have made it very different for companies to truly standardize on a browser," says Gartner Research analyst David Mitchell Smith.
One example of the changing face of business browser use is SquareTwo Financial, a Denver-based financial services company that works primarily in distressed asset management. The firm's 280 employees handle both consumer and commercial business, buying and selling debt, and a franchise program means that there are upwards of 1,500 more people working at SquareTwo affiliates. According to CTO Chris Reigrut, the company takes in roughly $280 million in annual revenue.
"In addition to buying and selling debt, we also provide a software-as-a-service platform that our franchises (and we) use to actually negotiate and litigate the debt," he tells Network World.
Square Two hasn't needed to standardize, he says, because keeping their offerings diverse is part of the idea - the company's various online resources all have differing requirements.
"We do distribute Firefox on Windows systems - however, Safari and IE are both frequently used. Our internal wiki is only officially supported on Firefox and Safari. Our SaaS 'client' is a pre-packaged Firefox install so that it looks more like a traditional thick-client application. Most of our employees use their browser for a couple of internal systems, as well as several external services (i.e. HR, training, etc)," says Reigrut (who, like the other IT pros quoted in this story is a member of the CIO Executive Council Pathways program for leadership development).
The Microsoft faithful, however, are still out there. Many businesses have chosen to remain standardized on IE, for several reasons. SickKids, a children's research hospital in Toronto, sticks with Microsoft's browser mostly for the ease of applying updates.
"We have more than 7,000 end-point devices. Most of those devices are Windows workstations and Internet Explorer is included as part of the Microsoft Windows operating system. As such, this makes it easier and integrates well with our solution to manage and deploy upgrades, patches and hotfixes to the OS including IE," says implementations director Peter Parsan.
"Internet Explorer is more than a browser, it is the foundation for Internet functionality in Windows," he adds.
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The complexity of managing an ecosystem with more than 100 types of software - running the gamut from productivity applications to clinical programs - requires a heavily controlled approach, according to Parsan.
Smith agrees that IE still has its advantages for business users that want just such a strictly regimented technology infrastructure.
"If you want a managed, traditional IT environment ... really, your only option is Internet Explorer," he says, adding that both Firefox and Chrome lag behind IE in terms of effective centralized management tools.
Some companies, however, have gone a different way - standardizing not on IE, but on a competing browser.
Elliot Tally, senior director of enterprise apps for electronics manufacturer Sanmina, says his company's employees are highly dependent on browsers for business-critical activities. Everything from ERP to document control (which he notes is "big for a manufacturing company") to the supply chain is run from a web app.
Tally says Sanmina made the move to standardize on Chrome in 2009, in part because of a simultaneous switch to Gmail and Google Apps from IE and Microsoft products.
"It made sense to go with the browser created and supported by the company that created the apps we rely on. Also, Chrome installs in user space so it doesn't require admin privileges to auto-update," he says. "It also silently auto-updates, as opposed to Firefox, which requires a fresh install to update versions, or IE, which is similar. Chrome, over the last year or so, has supported web standards better than any other browser, and (until recently) has offered significantly better performance."
Plainly, broad diversity exists both in the actual browsers used by workers and the approaches businesses have taken in managing their use.
That diversity, says Smith, is the reason Gartner has been advising clients against standardization from the outset.
"Standardize on standards, not browsers," he urges. "That was a controversial position for 10 years. People really didn't agree with it, they didn't listen to it, and they paid the price."
Microsoft, as well, has had to pay a price.
"[Standardization] hurts Microsoft's reputation as an innovator; as a forward-thinker," he says. "When people's impression of using Microsoft technology - whether it's a browser, whether it's an operating system - is something that is two or three versions old, because they're dealing with it through what enterprises want."