The truth about corporate browsers

Netscape and Internet Explorer offer features useful for corporations, such as mail and news clients, but are they really suited for corporate use? Larry Seltzer examines the real-world utility of these browsers.

Recent news detailed Netscape's plummet toward the x-axis of browser "market" share.

And while it appears that AOL is finally considering the use of Mozilla's Gecko layout engine in their mainstream AOL client, this has no real significance for the corporate market ("You've got meetings!" I don't think so).

In fact, if you're a consumer, and especially a techie user, Netscape 6.2 and Mozilla, which is approaching version 1.0 a mere 4 years after beginning development, are feasible--if not optimal--alternatives. But is there any practical alternative to Internet Explorer in the corporate market?

The answer is "sort-of, kind-of, not really." and Netscape have put a lot of work into the browser, the parts of the browser, and some ancillary applications like the mail/news client, but there's little about the project that seems aimed at making it easier for corporations to use Mozilla or Netscape Navigator instead of Internet Explorer.

Companies with significant numbers of non-Windows client systems have more reason to look at other browsers--undoubtedly a small and well-known bit of low-hanging fruit in the business. Even though there is a well-regarded version of Internet Explorer for the Mac, many of the corporate benefits of IE don't extend to it: The Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK)--a wizard-driven tool for generating a customized version of Internet Explorer--can't make a version of IE for Mac. And, there's no Active Directory client for the Mac, so you can't do any serious central administration. So basically, if you're a corporation with non-Windows clients, Microsoft's browser message is that you should run Windows. You can use the IEAK or the Netscape Client Customization Kit (NCCK) to change a lot of the buttons and graphics, pre-populate Favorites and stuff like that. Both products were designed for and are primarily targeted at Internet service providers who might want the browser--the user's primary interface to the Internet--to talk about them rather than about Microsoft or Netscape. Microsoft's IEAK page makes a case that the IEAK makes IE a better corporate browser, and it makes some fair points. But if you are an Active Directory shop, you're probably better off doing your centralized browser administration through Active Directory, which provides a number of group policy objects for administering the browser. Netscape and Mozilla offer nothing like this. Of course with either IEAK or NCCK you could, through Active Directory and other methods, create new or modified executables and push them to the clients.

So what do Mozilla and Netscape offer the corporate administrator? Precious little. There appears to be nothing in the way of centralized administrative capability in Netscape 6. At least Netscape 4 supports a roaming profile feature that lets users move around. This feature doesn't seem to have made it into Netscape 6 or Mozilla.

Netscape 6 does have some special features that could be useful in corporations, even if they aren't specifically targeted at them. A corporation could set up a custom "My Sidebar" page. My Sidebar pages, also called tabs, are HTML pages formatted to fit in the sliding side-window where Netscape displays them. Both Mozilla and Netscape have some cool techie and developer features that I wish IE had, such as the JavaScript console and the cookie manager (of course if Microsoft put in a cookie manager they'd be criticized for killing the cookie manager business).

But there are many more missing features that you'd want to see in Netscape.. Although there's a Mozilla Calendar project, it's only in alpha stage (by Mozilla standards it should reach version 1.0 by the time my grandkids graduate from the University of The Moon). IE doesn't have a calendar either, but that's because Microsoft has Outlook, which is the corporate calendaring solution of the real world. There is a link in the Mozilla menus to the Netscape Calendar service on; I doubt this will turn out to be a practical corporate solution.

Finally, security is an important corporate issue, and you never have to go too long without a security problem being revealed in IE. But this is pure ubiquity in action; back when Netscape was more popular than IE, there were more security problems in Netscape. I have no doubt that there are plenty of security problems in the current Netscape browser, but nobody knows about them because nobody cares.

So, could that be a reason to choose Netscape? By choosing the less popular route, don't you fly under the radar of the attackers? Yes, to an extent, although you don't need a less popular browser to protect yourself - you can simply keep browsers and antivirus and firewall software up-to-date. And, if other people catch on and Netscape becomes more popular, it will inevitably become a more popular target of attacks. Besides, the less popular route also means you're less likely to get all the software support you need. For example, there's no Google Toolbar for Mozilla or Netscape, and many utility programs, including antivirus programs like Norton Antivirus, require IE.

It's not often you find a major corporation using Netscape, at least not for mail. Until recently Time Warner--of AOL/Time Warner--had Netscape and AOL's own mail as corporate standards. As was widely reported, they are no longer requiring that everyone use these programs. Turns out that neither of them worked well. Had AOL/Time Warner looked carefully the first time, they would see that neither program was designed as a corporate solution.

Is your company still using Netscape, or is IE your primary browser? Share your thoughts in our TalkBack forum, or send an e-mail to Larry.


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