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Importance of browser-based collaboration tools as enterprise application

The new variety of browsers and an increased dependence on browser-based applications is changing how IT looks at the tool.

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Summary:

The new variety of browsers and an increased dependence on browser-based applications is changing how IT looks at the tool.

Highlights:

  • The importance of browsers as an enterprise application
  • The challenges browsers represent
  • Why it’s hard to use just one

Organizations have traditionally devoted minimum attention to Web browsers, but IT departments feel that they need to change that hands-off strategy. In the past two years, a variety of factors have made browsers a much more important piece of business software for IT to deal with.

The fact is that you probably end up with Chrome, Firefox, IE, and maybe Safari on your machine, and you'll use [one or another] depending on the applicationThe fact is that you probably end up with Chrome, Firefox, IE, and maybe Safari on your machine, and you'll use [one or another] depending on the application

One consideration has been the  rising popularity of cloud computing in the enterprise, which has led CIOs to green-light the adoption of Web-hosted applications of various types, like office productivity, collaboration, and CRM. In addition, on-premise enterprise applications, whether in-house or commercial products, increasingly favor browsers as their frontend components. Last but not the least, is the rising range of viable Web browsers. Microsoft's Internet Explorer for a long time was the only browser option, but today there are significant user bases for Firefox. Forrester Research reports that IE holds 78 percent of the installed base, Firefox 18 percent, Chrome 2 percent, Safari 1.4 percent, and Opera 0.2 percent. Even within the IE family, fundamental changes in IE8 in many ways mean IT should treat it as a separate browser. The greater dependence on a larger stable of browsers, not to mention their numerous versions and plug-ins, complicates the environment that IT must manage, with greater impact on the business when compatibility or other issues arise. And the pace of browser updates is only adding to the pressure.

The Browser as an Enterprise App

"Enterprises need to think about the browser as a productivity tool, not as a transparent application. They need to look at browsers more strategically," says Sheri McLeish, a Forrester analyst. "The browser is one of the most important pieces of software we have right now," says Andy Armagost, the Unix/Linux system administrator at Brigham Oil & Gas. The browser is the front end to various applications, including Yahoo's Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which is the company's main e-mail and collaboration platform. So it's not surprising that "a good portion of the help desks requests we get are related to browsers, like needing a particular plug-in to do something on a particular Web site," Armagost says.

At Brigham Oil & Gas, the browser of choice is Firefox 3 because the IT  department believes it offers better performance and is more secure than IE and previous Firefox versions. Thus, Brigham Oil & Gas has designed several of its in-house applications specifically for Firefox. Still, the IT department keeps an eye on the other browsers. It has to track and support IE, which is the only browser option for certain sites and Web apps that use ActiveX technology. And it tracks Google's Chrome; though still young, Chrome promises interesting improvements in performance and other areas, Armagost says.

Don't Ignore Browsers

But Brigham Oil & Gas' hands-on approach to its users' browsers is the exception rather than the rule. A recent Forrester Research study found that 60 percent of enterprises are still using IE6, an "old" browser. These hands-off enterprises are depriving their time-strapped users from the security, performance, and functionality enhancements that newer browsers like IE7, IE8, Firefox 3, Chrome, and Safari 4 can offer, says Forrester's McLeish. That IE6 is by far the most widely used browser among enterprises reflects most IT departments' lack of interest in browsers. "There's a tremendous lack of education for employees from their IT departments around browsers," McLeish says. However, this laissez-faire approach toward browsers won't last long, McLeish says: "The rise of software as a service will force enterprises to at least come up with a browser strategy for their workforce."

One Browser Won't Fix It

One Browser Won't Fix It

Keeping up with the latest about browsers, their different versions, and their plug-ins is getting harder, not easier. "You certainly have fragmentation and confusion in browsers today because you have a lot of innovation coming from the major browser companies," said Kris Tuttle, founder of Research 2.0, a research company that specializes in emerging technologies and investment. But standardizing on one isn't the answer to the diversity challenge that today's browser choices create. Even for a small organization like Research 2.0, Tuttle has found the need for all team members to use several different browsers for the  various Web applications the company uses. Research 2.0's preferred browser is Firefox, which it uses for Google Apps and Gmail, its primary e-mail system. Employees also like Chrome, but other software and sites run only on IE, he said. "The fact is that you probably end up with Chrome, Firefox, IE, and maybe Safari on your machine, and you'll use [one or another] depending on the application," Tuttle says.

Browser Choice Hell

The new multi-browser reality is a challenge for developers, particularly if they create public-facing Web sites or commercial Web apps. For example, Zoho, which sells a Web-hosted suite of communication and collaboration software for SMBs, has had to increase the time and resources it spends tweaking and supporting its apps for different browsers. "It's a constant effort and it's not insignificant," says Raju Vegesna, the company's product evangelist. "We need to make sure our apps work perfectly not only with the different browsers and their versions, but also with their plug-ins." Guillermo Söhnlein, who is a consultant at Fortivo Consulting for a variety of  technology startups, has seen the difficulty firsthand in some of the software developers he has worked with. "It puts a lot of added pressure on the application developers to make sure they have all the processes in place before they release the app and continually monitor the browsers after the app is released," he says. The difficulties not only hit startup software developers. A scan of known issues of Google applications shows how far-ranging the problem is. It reveals that when a Web application malfunctions, IT administrators and commercial developers have to do detective work to find out why a particular browser is misbehaving. For example, in the official 'known

issues' page of Google Docs, one item titled 'Document fails to load' reads: "The  latest version of Safari - 3.0.4 - for Leopard sometimes fails when loading a document. Betas of Safari work fine. We are investigating. Any information is welcome." Another item titled 'Can't rename sheets within a workbook' reads: "Firefox Skype extension often causes problems with renaming sheets within a workbook. As a temporary solution, you may want to uninstall the extension."

The issue of browser variety is also very much on the radar at messaging vendor

Zimbra, which stays in close contact with the browser vendors and gets access to early releases of new versions that normally aren't publicly available, says Kevin Henrikson, Zimbra's director of engineering. Zimbra handles the challenge by having its software detect the absence or presence of certain features in a browser, something Henrikson calls "feature sniffing." The company has created a database of browser capabilities and uses that to design software that can adjust its operations based on what is and is not available in a browser, without tying code modifications to a specific browser brand or version, he says. CIO

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