IE will continue to win the enterprise browser wars

Until admins can easily set security group policies for browsers such as Firefox or Chrome, IE will reign supreme in the office

I was one of the first to download Firefox. I continue to use it to this day for my daily e-mail. I also downloaded Safari for a chance to play around with a different browser. I looked into Browzar as an interesting carry-along browser that leaves no footprint. And just recently I downloaded and installed Chrome, Google's entry into the game. I read comments from the new Chrome users that actually say, and I quote, "I don't really care who wins the browser wars: Firefox, Chrome, whoever. So long as it isn't IE!"

Well, I can't foresee the future, but I understand the present state of modern server/client administration and the fact is this: IE is easily managed through Group Policy, whereas the others are difficult at best to control on a broad scale. For that reason, IE is destined to continue to win the browser wares in the enterprise. Don't underestimate just how critical it is to be able to control policies for your users' browser, either: We are talking about an application that directly connects users to all the malicious bots, virus, and so forth of the world.

[ For more on Google's open source Chrome browser, check out InfoWorld's special report. ]

If you were an IT administrator with several hundreds or thousands of computers to care for, and you were contemplating moving to a new browser, I'd have some questions for you: What is your motive or business case for orchestrating the rollout into your environment? Is IE lacking in security? Not quite. Is it more difficult to deploy? Actually, IE deploys with the OS for the most part -- if you are deploying Windows Vista like all the other proud enterprise admins are doing (kidding). In fact, with Group Policy built in to your Windows Servers that handle IE, it's the browser that allows you to manage and control the most; everything from security settings to the Tip of the Day can be configured and controlled with a few clicks.

In the cause of fairness, however, I did some investigation into how one can control the additional browsers available on the market with the same ease you can control IE. I discussed the matter with Jeremy Moskowitz, an MVP in Group Policy and well-known Group Policy author. He explained that there are ways to control the other browsers, though depending on how a given browser is designed, you may have no options.

One option is to use ADM templates. These allow you to apply changes through Group Policy to machines across your enterprise that will affect applications such as browsers. However, the changes are registry edits (which may bring back memories of Windows 95 or NT 4.0 when there were entire books on hacking the registry). Usually the changes made will tattoo the registry, eliminating the flexibility you have with Group Policy settings. Certain settings may not be configurable through the registry, as well. But this is at least a starting option.

There's other means of applying preferences to non-IE browsers. You can accomplish the task with Group Policy preference extensions. These are a carry-over from DesktopStandard, a company Microsoft purchased in 2006, as well as the PolicyMaker application, the features of which are now included in Server 2008. The problem with these approaches is that users can still change the preferences you set, so it isn't a perfect scenario.

Notably, Moskowitz explained that Firefox -- which you would think would be designed to easily administrate with Group Policy -- cannot be controlled. The reason: "It uses JavaScript files," he says. "There's no Group Policy way, right now, to handle 'odd' file types like .JS or XML files."

Personally, as an admin, I wouldn't see any real need to deploy a browser other than IE in my enterprise. I don't care how much faster the pages may come up. Even before IE incorporated tabbed browsing, I wouldn't have made the move to Firefox. I'd need a far more compelling case than "the pages load a nanosecond faster" or "I can download cool skins for my new browser" or even "I just don't want IE to win" to add yet another uncontrollable app to my world.

If these developers of new browsers really want to impress IT admins, they will seek a way to provide a Group Policy package that allows us to control it as easily as we do IE. There are companies that specialize in this but none to the degree that PolicyPak does. Once the developers do take user control seriously, we might have a real browser war on our hands on the enterprise level. For now, the battle is only being waged on the personal desktop.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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