Microsoft-bankrolled report argues for single-browser enterprises

'Unrealistic,' counters company that crafts browser management tools; 'hollow victory,' adds analyst

A Microsoft-commissioned report published last week said companies can save tens of thousands of dollars in support and development costs by standardizing on one browser.

Although the report, conducted by Forrester Research and paid for by Microsoft, never used the words "Internet Explorer," "Windows," "Chrome" or "Firefox," there was little doubt of its focus: Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE).

"The study revealed that IT pros overwhelming prefer to standardize on the browser that ships with their desktop OS," Forrester said. IE, of course, is the browser bundled with Windows, the planet's most popular business desktop operating system.

According to surveys of 133 IT decision makers at North American enterprises, 96% of the companies have standardized on one browser for workers' PCs. But they're split over whether to support others.

Nearly half of the enterprises allowed employees to install an alternative alongside the company-standard browser. About a third of those refused to answer users' support questions about such browsers, while the remainder supported alternatives on a "best-effort" basis, Forrester said.

The relative lack of interest in non-standard browsers was driven by several fears, said Forrester, including a higher number of calls to the corporate help desk, more trouble patching and maintaining a wider range of software, and higher development costs of in-house Web apps that must run on multiple browsers.

A third of the companies that allow more than one browser estimated that doing so drove up costs by at least 20%. Some of that money was spent on Web app development, which they figured jumped 14% when multiple browsers were involved. Most of the estimated app creation cost increases came from security and patch management, and testing -- together nearly half the total -- while actual development accounted for just 5%.

Forrester may have been hesitant to name names in the report, but Microsoft certainly wasn't.

In a Dec. 13 blog post, Roger Capriotti, the director of IE marketing, leaned heavily on the report to tout 10 reasons why he thought IE10 -- the newest version that's bundled with Windows 8 and Windows RT, and is now in a preview stage for Windows 7 -- is best for business. In that blog, Capriotti used "Internet Explorer" 28 times as he cited its TCO (total cost of ownership) advantage.

The Forrester survey, said Capriotti, "Reveals business priorities that reaffirm Internet Explorer's choice as a great browser for business."

But what neither Forrester or Capriotti mentioned, said an analyst, was the BYOD, or "bring your own device," trend that's making company-controlled desktops and notebooks, and thus their browsers, less important as employee tools.

"It is accurate that most businesses stick to or certainly prefer to stick to one browser in terms of what they actually distribute or what their internal development teams focus on to limit their test matrix," acknowledged Al Hilwa of IDC, a research firm rival of Forrester. "However, the BYOD trend is making inroads [and] companies' control of the desktop may end up being a hollow victory in the long run as users bring in diverse devices with different browsers."

If a company supports worker-owned devices -- smartphones and tablets in particular -- it must also support those devices' native browsers. And in few cases are those IE. Apple's iOS, for example, standardizes on Safari, while Google's Android now relies on Chrome.

Hilwa praised IE -- in particular Microsoft's contentious decision to turn on the "Do Not Track" privacy feature in IE10 -- but cautioned that the days of standardized browsers are waning.

"The issue is that IE is focused on one platform [Windows] and as companies diversify their device holdings, corporate-owned or BYOD, IE is really challenged to be that one browser they select," Hilwa said in an email.

Others disagreed with Microsoft's conclusion that businesses should stick to one browser.

"They're saying 'Don't have a multi-browser enterprise,' but really, the multi-browser enterprise is inevitable," said Gary Schare, president of Browsium, a Redmond, Wash. firm founded by several former Microsoft employees. Schare, for example, worked at Microsoft for 14 years in product management, and for four of those led the IE7 team.

"Microsoft's position of a homogeneous browser environment is just unrealistic," Schare said, ticking off factors from BYOD to workers wanting to run the same browser at work that they do at home.

Browsium has developed a pair of products to handle multi-browser business environments: Ion, formerly Unibrows, that lets companies run aged Web apps and intranets written for older versions of IE, say, IE6, in newer editions such as IE9.

The second, Catalyst, is slated for release in early 2013. Schare described Catalyst as a "traffic cop" that lets IT administrators set group policies in Windows that specifies which browser runs what apps or websites. A company can, for instance, force workers to run IE on all intranets, and Chrome to render all external domains, giving administrators more control in a multi-browser shop.

"IE8 is a legacy browser now," said Schare, referring to the 2009 browser's de-listing by Google this fall. "So if you're running IE8, you need a second browser." Many of Browsium's customers select Chrome as that second browser, Schare said.

"I was a bit surprised that Microsoft commissioned this report," admitted Schare. "We've been talking to people about this for years, but it's a little odd that Microsoft's worrying about IE."

Forrester declined to make available the analyst or analysts who conducted the research and wrote the report, citing company policy on commissioned work.

The report can be downloaded from Microsoft's website in PDF format.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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