Browser Apps and the Future of Web Browser Management

Despite all the craziness around mobile apps these days, I can’t help but wonder if Steve Jobs was onto something when he originally tried to limit the iPhone to standards-compliant HTML5 web apps. In the years since, these web apps have gotten dramatically more sophisticated. Google is offering a Chrome Web Store that consists solely of HTML5 web apps for its Chrome browser and Chrome OS-based devices. And Microsoft is now allowing developers to create native Windows 8 and Windows RT apps in HTML5 too.

HTML5 -- which is really an umbrella term for modern versions of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS -- is wonderful for a number of reasons, but one of the key benefits is that “write once, use everywhere” mantra that many of us recall from the heady early days of Java. In this case, it’s true, though, and not just a marketing tagline. HTML5 code might be the most reusable code of all, and with web browsers and web technologies ensconced as key components of every major technology platform on earth, the browser might in fact be gaining in relevance and popularity, despite all those mobile apps.

That said, businesses are as usual the anchor keeping this ship from steaming ahead full-speed. And while browsers are certainly easier to upgrade than OSs, many businesses are stuck with legacy browser versions or are using multiple browsers in a haphazard fashion simply because they need to support older web apps and intranets.

Here are two recent releases that can make managing web browsers a bit less painful.


I assume most of you are familiar with the Internet Explorer Administration Kit, or IEAK. The latest IEAK version, IEAK 10 for Windows 8, is now available for download. It includes a wizard-like Internet Explorer Customization Wizard for creating custom browser packages, a Windows Installer for creating MSI deployments via Active Directory, and a ton of help. As always.

IEAK is good stuff, but of course most of you are probably not even remotely considering Windows 8 and IE 10 at the moment. In fact, if your business mirrors the outside world, chances are good that you’re mired in multiple browser usage or, worse, an out-of-date IE version. Which brings me to . . .

Browsium Catalyst

Two years ago, I wrote about an intriguing tool called Browsium Unibrows in "Solving IE 6 Compatibility Issues Doesn't Require Expense, Complexity, or Virtualization." Aimed at one of the major Windows 7 upgrade blockers, Unibrows -- later updated and renamed to Ion -- offers a fairly amazing set of functionality around configuring Internet Explorer and browser plug-in versions, nicely overcoming the complexity and cost of Microsoft’s officially sanctioned approaches to browser compatibility issues. As my first meeting with the company wound down, a few natural follow-up questions presented themselves: What’s the follow-up to this? And what about other browsers?

Browsium answered both questions in late October in the unfortunately timed beta release of its new product, Catalyst, which is a multi-browser management tool. (The Catalyst beta was released right in the middle of all the Microsoft launch craziness of late October.) But don’t let the timing get in the way of a great solution: Catalyst is even simpler to use than Unibrows and is perhaps even more useful given the way browser usage is changing.

Part of the reason Catalyst is so compelling is that it formalizes and enforces what is already de facto behavior at many companies: Users run a legacy Internet Explorer version, often on Windows XP, to browse intranet sites and legacy web apps, but they turn to more modern browsers such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome for everything else. With Catalyst, this can be automated. IT can control which browsers open which websites, and it works with IE, Chrome, and Firefox.

A simple configuration manager makes short work of the rules-based management. So you might configure most websites to open in, say, Chrome, which supports modern web standards. But those legacy web apps will open only in IE 6 on Windows XP, or perhaps IE 8 on Windows 7. If a user attempts to open a legacy web app in Chrome, IE automatically takes over. The reverse is also true: Visit any site but those legacy web apps in IE, and Chrome launches. Simple.

Browsium supports running Catalyst side-by-side with Ion, so you can even further micro-manage IE without worrying about migrating to newer versions of Windows. But it’s also simple enough that even smaller organizations should give it a peek. The beta is freely available now and available at the Browsium website.


TAGS: Windows 8
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