It was the browser equivalent of the shot heard round the world.
In July, in a blog post titled "Saying It Out Loud," Bob Sutor, vice president, Open Source and Linux, IBM Software Group announced that Big Blue will now use Mozilla Firefox as its default browser. This means that its 400,000 employees will be "strongly encouraged" to use Firefox, as will the company's vendors. To explain why, he wrote: "Firefox is stunningly standards compliant, and interoperability via open standards is key to IBM's strategy."
Some observers wryly note that combating Microsoft is equally key to IBM's strategy, and may have had something to do with this decision. But whatever inspired IBM's move, it raises a question for all businesses, large and small: Should all employees be encouraged -- or required -- to use the same browser?
There are obvious advantages to telling everyone to use the same browser at all times: it makes support much simpler, reduces the software on employee desktops, and with only one browser to worry about makes it easier to handle security issues. But most companies find that telling employees they must use the same browser may bring mixed reactions. "In some cases, they'll get blind acceptance, in others, they'll get grudging acceptance, or they may get subterfuge and workarounds," notes Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner. "You can wind up with an underground IT culture."
Another option, he says, is to let users choose, and support a multi-browser environment. A third choice is somewhere in the middle: "Standardize on one browser, but have some variation of a don't-ask-don't-tell policy," he says.
Which is right will depend on your particular company's needs. "Really listen to your end users so you know if their life is easier with one browser or another depending on the sites they visit," advises Kiran Sivaraam, infrastructure manager at Rising Medical Solutions, a medical cost containment company. "Whatever you do, you don't want to be a roadblock."
And, he advises, "Train employees on proper practices when browsing the Web. Regardless of what they're using that will cut down on malware."
Which browser to choose?
Every browser has its pluses and minuses. Here's a quick look at good points and bad points for some of the most popular:
Microsoft Internet Explorer
Internet Explorer (IE) is sometimes criticized by tech folk who claim it's less secure than such browsers as Firefox and Chrome. "It's a matter of numbers," Valdes explains. "Microsoft has a very secure development process, but they are the largest target in the world. A browser may consist of two million lines of code, and every program will have some number of vulnerabilities per X lines of code. Even if Explorer were more securely written than other browsers, pragmatically speaking it might still be less secure because there are more hackers trying to exploit it."
But Internet Explorer does have two big advantages. First, it's the market leader, with around 60 percent of all users browsing the Web with some version of it. This means that your users are unlikely to ever encounter a website that "doesn't work well" in Explorer. The second advantage is that Explorer is built to integrate with other Microsoft products, including Windows Server, meaning that your company's IT staff can completely control it. That was a deciding factor for Rising Medical Solutions, which is subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and must zealously protect patient information.
"We mandate IE for security reasons as well as for compatibility with our systems and clients' systems," Sivaraam says. "Since we're a Microsoft shop we can define group policies for the network." That means the company's IT staff can block access to known malicious websites, prevent users from downloading add-ons and make sure security patches and updates are installed on schedule. "We lock down our rights pretty tight, and IE is the only way to do that," he says. That said, if requested, his staff will sometimes install Firefox on a user's computer on a case-by-case basis.
And Valdes says, whatever you do, don't lock yourself in to Internet Explorer 6, a now very outdated version. "That's a sub-optimal browser, limited in features and non-compliant with standards," he says.
Besides being IBM's top choice, Firefox wins high marks from many tech experts for both security and speed. As an open-source product overseen by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, Firefox is not controlled by any one corporation, something that appeals to Sutor and many other open-source advocates.
It also is often preferred by developers. "Firefox is the best web development tool," adds Micah Topping, CTO at CouponCabin.com. "It gives you insight into the page that's in front of you."
At Think Basis, an Internet marketing company, employees have a choice of browsers, but are encouraged to use Firefox, Chrome, or Safari rather than IE for security reasons, according to Nick Dumitru, president and founder. A switch to Firefox a couple of years ago seemed to eliminate the occasional virus at the company, he recalls. "Then Chrome was released," he says. "We like Chrome because of its speed."
And Sivaraam appreciates the way Chrome deals with tabs. "If a page on one tab causes a crash, it crashes the whole browser with IE," he says. "Chrome allows just that tab to crash without affecting the others."
Like Chrome, Safari is built using WebKit, an open-source browser engine that many developers believe is the way of the future. WebKit powers the browsers on Apple and Google Android mobile devices as well as desktop browsers.
Although CouponCabin.com does not mandate use of a single browser, Topping recommends Safari as the default browser for most users. "We use it as a fallback," he says. "If you're having trouble with our tools in Firefox, we'll tell you to try Safari. If that doesn't work, then we know something really is wrong."
As a WebKit browser, he believes Safari is among the most forward-looking browsers available. "We've had the experience of Firefox starting to slow down when too many different tabs are open at once," he says. "It doesn't happen in Safari, so we think its memory management is better."
Opera has far fewer users than the other browsers, though its popularity is growing. Its low usage is one reason Valdes recommends it for those who particularly need browser security. At less than 3 percent of the market, he says, there are relatively few hackers targeting Opera. It also presents a smaller target. "Opera is a fraction of the size of the other browsers and with fewer lines of code, there are fewer dark corners to exploit," he says.
"So if you are a user who travels in the bad neighborhoods of the Internet, so that you really are concerned about security, you should use Opera."