IE 7 vs. Firefox 2.0: Why This Browser Battle Matters To Businesses

On second thought, the 21-year-old Ross lets the fighting words fly. "Firefox brought Microsoft back to the table, but they make no guarantees how long they'll stick around," he says. "I can't imagine why any individual--let alone an IT department--would bet on a company with a proven track record of gross abandonment."

Time to go another few rounds. Five long years after the release of Internet Explorer 6--which provided the final knockout punch to one-time champ Netscape--Microsoft is about to release a major upgrade to IE. New features such as tabbed browsing and integrated search mimic those already in Firefox, causing some observers, Ross among them, to describe IE7 as a "catch-up" release. Mozilla's not standing still --Firefox 2.0 will be released within days of IE7.

For Microsoft, IE7 represents a key piece of software in its critically important "Live" initiative to deliver Windows, Office, and other products as services over the Web. "The browser is the gateway to the Web, and therefore the window to Live services," says IE7 product manager Gary Schare.

Browsers should matter to businesses because they're the interfaces through which employees and customers will spend ever more of their screen time. Internet Explorer, Schare says, is "probably the most commonly used piece of Windows." Web sites and intranet portals are merely the low-hanging fruit when it comes to how browsers are used. Wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, search engines, and many more Web productivity tools are increasingly accessed and viewed through browsers, and a growing variety of mobile devices let you take a browser with you.

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Internet Explorer has many advantages in its quest to remain the dominant browser, but Microsoft will have to save IE7 from the vendor's own bad habits. Previous versions were slack on security, standards compliance, and new features. Bill Gates admitted as much in March. "In a sense, we're doing a mea culpa and saying we waited too long to do a new browser release," Microsoft's chairman said.

IE7 promises a lot. For users, the biggest addition is tabbed browsing, which lets multiple Web pages appear in one browser window. It's one of Firefox's most popular features and could become even more powerful coupled with business applications. "A lot of our apps are moving to the Web, and having to click different tabs rather than opening different windows is simply easier," says Kevin Moll, desktop management team leader for the 892-lawyer firm Foley and Lardner. Another time-saver is a search bar integrated into the browser--here, too, Firefox led the way.

But it's security that's been Internet Explorer's No. 1 shortcoming, according to IT pros and Microsoft itself. "Nothing pains you more than people bailing on your product because they don't trust it," Schare says. Among IE7's security advances: a parsing module identifies and discards dangerous URLs, turns off most ActiveX controls by default, and offers color-coded warnings in the URL bar based on whether sites are trusted. Another is a built-in phishing filter that spots malicious pages before they reach the user.

Microsoft will distribute IE7 as an automatic update, but many companies won't let it be pushed to employees just yet. A reputation for buggy new releases precedes Microsoft. "We have no desire to be on the bleeding edge of browser technology," says Dave Pluke, VP of IT at engineering firm Ericksen Roed. "Stability and security are paramount." Pluke says his company's IE7 upgrade is more than a year off. Foley & Lardner plans to wait until next year, when IE7 will be part of the firm's Windows Vista upgrade. IE7 is the default browser in Vista; Microsoft last week confirmed that Vista is on track to be available for businesses in November.

Business Case For Firefox

Every IT pro wants Firefox to hang in there, if only to keep Microsoft on its toes. Not as many welcome Firefox onto their company desktops. Firefox 2.0 will be hard-pressed to change that, but the browser's grassroots adopters will force IT departments to pay attention.

When Firefox rose from the ashes of Netscape 6 (Communicator's successor) in 2003, Mozilla developers envisioned a true challenger to Internet Explorer, not just a consumer novelty. Extensible, feature-rich, open source, oft updated, and quickly patched, Firefox was everything IE6 wasn't. Those attributes helped Firefox grab 11% of worldwide browser market share, based on an average of recent usage statistics from, Net Applications, and Internet Explorer has about an 84% share; Opera, Apple's Safari, and others make up the rest, holding just enough share to push an innovation agenda of their own.

Firefox 2.0 doesn't make the same leap ahead as IE7, but that's in part because it's been only 11 months since its last big release. It enhances its most popular feature, tabbed browsing, with a history of recently closed tabs, the ability to reopen closed tabs, single-click tab closing, and more ways to display tabs. It also adds an open source alternative to commercial installers like InstallShield, anti-phishing features, spell checking for text boxes, and improved support for reading RSS feeds.

Companies need to deal with Firefox in two main ways. First, IT teams must make sure their Web sites work when viewed through Firefox, since millions of people use it. (It's been downloaded 228 million times.) Second, many employees download Firefox on their own, and more IT departments are letting it in. JupiterResearch found last year that 26% of companies with more than 200 employees allowed Firefox on their PCs; this year, that jumped to 44%. "Every day, we hear from IT departments who have made the move to Firefox to maximize productivity and to minimize security concerns," says Chris Beard, Mozilla's VP of products and marketing. Beard can't point to any Fortune 500 company that has standardized on Firefox at the expense of Internet Explorer, but those that support their employees using Firefox include Boeing, Fidelity Investments, and IBM.

Southwest Airlines makes sure its Web site works with every browser so as not to lose any customers, and it makes its internal Web portals accessible by Firefox, since many staff don't have business PCs. "We weren't going to box people in on what kind of computer they wanted to run at home," Southwest CTO Kerry Schwab says. Internally, Southwest sticks with Internet Explorer for everyone except those who prove they need Firefox, such as developers who must make sure a Web site or application works with the Mozilla browser.

For Firefox to gain traction in businesses, it must work with more applications. It's heading in that direction, says Chris Hoffman, Mozilla's director of special projects, citing new versions of Lotus Notes and Oracle's PeopleSoft. IE's increased adherence to Web standards also may result in more apps being compatible across browsers.

Working in IE7's favor are its deep integration with Windows, the level of professional support, and its compatibility with thousands of applications. Civil engineering firm Wright-Pierce uses ERP from BST Global that doesn't work properly in any browser besides Microsoft's. "We don't have any real incentive to explore alternative browsers," IT manager Ray Sirois says. Law firm Foley & Lardner blocks employees from downloading Firefox. Explains Moll: "Go with the devil you know."

Next Versions In Sight

Expect both developers to pick up the pace of innovation. Firefox 3.0, code-named Gran Paradiso, is already in the works, with a projected May release. Mozilla's goals for Firefox 3 are to improve security, performance, and stability; get it to work with more Web sites; and better support corporate deployment. New features will include a revamped approach to bookmarks and history called "Places" that will integrate RSS and may automatically categorize favorites.

Clearly, Microsoft needs to pick up the pace if it's to keep up with the more nimble Mozilla. Microsoft promises it will update Internet Explorer more frequently, with the next version within 18 months.

No doubt companies will upgrade to IE7, though many will wait until they move to Vista. Forrester Research analyst Colin Teubner recommends that companies test IE7 to ensure compatibility with their applications. The security features alone offer enough reason to upgrade to IE7, even for users of XP, says Teubner, who also recommends upgrading to Firefox 2 for companies that allow it.

But Southwest's Schwab says being a low-cost airline means keeping IT slim, which means not upgrading to IE7 until the release is stable. "Being an early customer means you're taking on a lot of pain," he says. Rob Peterson, CIO of the Strive Group, which sells product displays and supply chain services, is underwhelmed. "Other than the tabbed browsing," he says, "I'm not sure what IE7 brings to the table that we'd be interested in."

Internet Explorer will work closely with Vista. IE7 will control HTTP behavior in Outlook and Windows Media Player, just as IE6 does in Windows XP. The browser will be compatible only with Windows Vista, Server 2003, XP SP2, and XP x64 Edition. And IE7 will be a richer product in Vista than in XP, including enhanced network diagnostics and a more locked-down mode of browsing. Vista will tap IE7 RSS feeds for a number of new functions.

Where They're Different

Working in Firefox's favor are more than 1,800 free extensions that can be downloaded to customize the browser, including ad blockers, development and testing tools, and different types of tab management. Microsoft understands those benefits and has launched to gather hundreds of IE applications and add-ons. But it's cautious about opening the code further out of security concerns, and about breaking other browser functionality, as occurs sometimes in Firefox.

Both browsers will have built-in RSS readers, but Microsoft's performs better by rendering feeds in a more user-friendly way, including filtering by category, showing time stamps on articles, and looking more like Web pages. Outlook 2007 will use the IE7 RSS platform to share, for example, calendar feeds. Firefox also lacks the print management capabilities of IE7, which scales printed pages to fit the paper.

The competition puts pressure on both developers to keep improving. The Netscape-Microsoft "browser wars" ended in a rout amid lack of innovation and Microsoft's brute force. Most businesses don't really care if today's browser battle is an evenly matched fight, as long as they keep slugging.

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8 Internet Explorer, Firefox Features That Matter Most To Businesses