UK government wakes up to Firefox

With software company Autodesk also pledging to make at least one of its products compatible with Firefox, the days of IE-only Web sites could be numbered

The Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) has pledged to make its Web sites compatible with as many browsers as possible, including the popular open source browser Firefox.

Carl Mawson, the head of e-communications at the DWP, said on Wednesday that "we are very much aware of the widening range of browsers used by our customers, such as Firefox and Opera. We aim to address this, so that our Web sites work in as many browsers, and on as many platforms as possible."

At present, the job search feature on the Jobcentreplus Web site does not work in the Firefox browser as the lists of job groups, types and titles are not populated when the search page is opened.

Mawson said that the DWP aims to fix this feature in the second half of this year.

"The Jobcentre Plus Web site itself does work using non-IE browsers such as Firefox. However, the job vacancy search element does not. It is however being redesigned to be compatible with non-IE browsers and we aim to deliver this towards the end of the year. This is as part of our ongoing commitment to developing widely accessible Web content, and also in response to customer comments," he said.

The DWP is not the only organisation that is keen to add Firefox support. Software company Autodesk said on Thursday that it is working on Firefox support for MapGuide, a product that allows companies to distribute GIS applications on the Web. "We consider Firefox support to be essential and are working on it for the next version of MapGuide," said an Autodesk spokesman.

This appears to be a change in policy for Autodesk. Earlier this month, one ZDNet UK reader claimed that Autodesk was unwilling to add support for non-IE browsers.

"My city has a very useful parcel map site that is based on certain Autodesk software. The Autodesk software is compatible only with IE. I talked to Autodesk about the issue; their rep said Autodesk has chosen not to make a version that works with other browsers," said the reader, in a ZDNet UK talkback discussing Firefox's recent apparent loss of market share.

It is uncertain whether Autodesk plans to add Firefox support to other products. For example, its DWF Viewer product, which allows users to view and print DWF files, is only compatible with IE. Autodesk employee Scott Sheppard said on the Autodesk forum in July that it has no plans to add Firefox support for this product at present.

"The data we collect suggests that Internet Explorer is still widely prevalent," said Sheppard in the forum posting. "Although it is possible for Autodesk to support other browsers, it does involve a fair amount of work. For example, Autodesk and Apple are undertaking that work for the Macintosh. There are a fair number of Macintosh users who wish to view DWF files. The Firefox/Mozilla customer base has not yet reached a similar critical mass."

Firefox's market share has significantly increased over the last year, with Web analytics firm claiming the open source browser has increased from 2.1 percent in May 2004 to 8.7 percent in April 2005. Firefox appears to have grabbed even more market share in Europe, with 30 percent, 24 percent and 22 percent of Web surfers using the open source browser in Finland, Germany and Hungary respectively. Most of this increase in market share has been at the expense of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, although one report earlier this month found that Internet Explorer had clawed back some market share from Firefox.

There are a number of other organisations that have recently updated their Web site to make sure it works with Firefox. Since May, the Web site of electrical retailer Powerhouse no longer excludes Firefox users and since June the Web site of English Heritage no longer forces Firefox users to use a non-graphical version of the site, according to Web site testing company SciVisum.

But some companies appear to still be reluctant to update their Web sites to make sure they work on Firefox. The Web site of cinema chain Odeon does not allow Firefox users to open the main part of the Web site, preventing users from booking cinema tickets.

"The Odeon Web site can be viewed by Firefox users by clicking on the 'text version' option on the home page. This includes all necessary information, including film times and booking," said an Odeon spokeswoman.

The Odeon spokeswoman was unable to comment on whether it had any plans to make the site compatible with Firefox.