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The Great Internet Explorer Debate Continues

Last week, I discussed Microsoft's recent attempts to promote Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), a product I consider among the most ill-conceived software products of all time. However, based on the feedback I received from numerous Windows IT Pro UPDATE readers, I'm in the minority, at least when it comes to business use of Web browsers. And although alternative Web browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox seem to fare better with tech-savvy individuals and power users, it's unclear to me whether that use will ever translate into dominant market share.

Recently, Microsoft Director of Windows Product Management Gary Schare told me that compatibility with existing Web sites was one of the huge draws of IE, and that opinion was borne out in the feedback I received. Overwhelmingly, readers speaking on behalf of companies said that they would be sticking with IE.

IE's compatibility prowess can be seen in various ways. First, the core HTML that many sites use is designed with IE in mind; often Web developers don't even test the code on other browsers. Second, IE, unlike Firefox, supports ActiveX technologies that many sites use. Third, some plug-ins and other browser add-ons are available only on IE. And finally, many customers require interoperability with Microsoft technologies such as Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA). Although you can run OWA on Firefox, the experience is much better in IE and very close to that you get with Outlook.

Although the reasons these Microsoft technologies work best (or at all) with IE are largely related to the first two points, program interoperability is worth mentioning separately because many readers manage networks at Microsoft shops. One such reader, Randy Barger, said "Interoperability is key. Many of my customers use ... Web-based applications. If I switched customers to another browser, they would, at the very least, have a diminished feature set available to them within these applications."

Some readers also noted that security was a concern and that, oddly enough, IE made the grade. Though IE has an admittedly spotty record, the product has undergone Microsoft Trustworthy Computing code reviews and been overhauled dramatically in both Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). "Security is a huge concern and in the corporate world that is next to cost," reader Tom Krause said. "\[With Mozilla,\] where's the track record? Where's the support?"

Reader Scott Barker also brought up an excellent point. "Unlike IE, which can be automatically 'patched' through Windows Update, Firefox requires a manual reinstall when updates or patches are released," he wrote. "As you know, most machines (especially those with XP SP2 installed) are set up to automatically run \[Automatic Updates\] and as a consequence, IE patches get installed automatically. But not ... Firefox. Yes, Firefox is a great browser, but how do you automate deployment of patches or updates when they happen? It adds yet more complexity to managing your environment."

Even end users who voiced their support for Firefox--and I'd have to put myself in this category--generally admitted that Firefox has problems. Many sites--especially online banking sites--don't work in non-IE browsers. That hasn't stopped a large population of influential people from installing and migrating to Firefox, but these sorts of incompatibilities are a nightmare for IT departments that have to support many users. Whether you want to call it inertia or pragmatism, most companies simply aren't going to be switching any time soon.

Schare also had an interesting response to a comment I made about IE's stagnant development and the fact that Firefox is supported by a vibrant community of enthusiasts who are extending the product's reach with new add-ons every day. He noted that IE, too, benefits from such a community and that users who want any of Firefox's features--such as tabbed browsing--can simply download add-ons or other IE-based browsers to get that functionality. "Right now, those kinds of features are more for advanced users and early adopters," he said. When I asked him when we might see such functionality in IE, Schare told me that it would happen in the Longhorn release of IE. Right now, the IE team has no plans to release any IE add-ons or improvements before Longhorn, although that could change. Schare noted that the MSN team was leveraging IE's add-on mechanisms by releasing such add-ons as the MSN Toolbar and that the IE team might consider releasing similar updates.

Although Microsoft has improved IE's security in the XP SP2 release, that version of IE isn't available to Windows 2000 or Windows 9x users, and I think that's a mistake. That said, it's clear why most businesses won't be switching from IE any time soon, although you might argue that an upgrade from Win2K or Win9x is more complicated than migrating users from IE to Firefox, assuming there are no compatibility concerns. Like many of you, I'm forced to use IE for work-related tasks, but I'll keep using Firefox when I can. It just seems like it provides safer access to Web-based content than does IE.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank everyone who wrote in this week. As always, Windows IT Pro UPDATE readers have proven themselves to be a dedicated and well-informed bunch. Thanks so much to everyone who provided feedback for this commentary.

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