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6/16/2005
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Is Firefox In Business?

Firefox, in spite of its gains over the past seven months, still gets the cold shoulder from most business users. Yet if a recent technology survey is correct, companies might soon beat a path to Mozilla's front door -- not because they want to, but because Microsoft left them without a choice.

Firefox, in spite of its gains over the past seven months, still gets the cold shoulder from most business users. Yet if a recent technology survey is correct, companies might soon beat a path to Mozilla's front door -- not because they want to, but because Microsoft left them without a choice.

It's no secret that Firefox hasn't done nearly as well among business users as it has on personal desktops. At one point or another, most Firefox fans, myself included, have indulged various conspiracy theories to explain this resistance -- a tempting, imaginative, and almost always ridiculous way to explain anything.

Actually, most of the corporate IT professionals I ask about Firefox, from executives all the way down to desktop support techs, long ago moved their own computers (and often their families' and friends' PCs) to Firefox, or perhaps to Netscape, Safari, Opera, or any other browser that isn't Internet Explorer.

Many of you already know the truth, which reflects the hard realities of the business world: Companies usually stick with Internet Explorer because years ago, they made unwise decisions to use ActiveX or other Microsoft-specific technologies as core components of their intranets and Web-based applications. These people are often the first to admit that given the chance to do it all again, they wouldn't use proprietary technologies for Web development, or at least they'd ensure those technologies only touched non-essential or short-life-cycle tools.

In the here and now, however, they're stuck: the cost of testing and supporting Firefox, either alongside Internet Explorer or, worse yet, on its own after redesigning non-standard Web-based data sources and applications, is simply too high. And for companies that expect Internet Explorer 7 to hustle down the wire some time this summer, giving them most of what they like about Firefox without tearing apart their Web infrastructures sounds like a much better idea.

But a funny thing happened on the way to doing business as usual. Last week, Microsoft told one-half of its installed base, as clearly and concisely as it could, that they would have to pay as much for IE 7 as they would have to pay for a full operating system upgrade -- since to get the former, they would have to buy the latter.

Some of you know exactly where I'm going with this, but it bears closer scrutiny. Last week, AssetMetrix Research Labs announced the results of a technology survey which sampled more than 150,000 PCs at 250 North American companies. It discovered that 48 percent of them still run Windows 2000.

Besides the raw percentage, the survey uncovered two other, very interesting trends. First, the number of Windows 2000 systems dropped by just four percent over the past two years. Second, the survey found that Windows 2000 has a bigger presence in bigger firms, while the ones with less than 250 desktops that have been more likely to land on Windows XP.

Speaking for myself, I had a vague sense that Windows 2000 was still a force in the IT world, although I had no idea it still powered so many desktops in so many large organizations. Now that I know, I have to wonder: Why did Microsoft decide last week to announce that Internet Explorer 7 would not support Windows 2000 -- even though customers with support contracts still entitled to another five years of extended support on Win2K PCs?

That's not a rhetorical question, either: I'm honestly stumped. Is there any significant advantage, even in theory, from telling half of your installed business user base that they can expect to twist in the wind, stuck with a massive software security risk, unless they begin a forced migration to Windows XP -- even if they weren't planning such a move for four or five years?

I don't know what anyone responsible for this decision in Redmond was thinking -- or not thinking -- at the time they made it. But I'm pretty sure i know what a lot of IT managers will think once they put all of this together: Firefox suddenly got much, much cheaper, both in expected costs due to software security risks and in terms of the price Microsoft expects them to pay to upgrade, even if all they want is a piddling browser upgrade so they can milk a few more years out of their Windows 2000 desktops.

It's not too late for Microsoft to think better of this craziness. The company can announce that -- of course! -- the security of Windows 2000 users and their faith in Microsoft far outweigh any possible gain from a cheap, ham-fisted mass extortion attempt. There will be a lot of people muttering under their breath, but they'll go along with a Microsoft volte-face because once again the cost-benefit comparisons will turn Firefox into a very hard sell.

Yet if it's not too late right now, very soon it will be, at least for the companies that don't want to remain stuck on Internet Explorer 6 for a very long and uncomfortable time. If Microsoft maintains its "go away" stance towards Windows 2000 users, by the end of the summer, Firefox could be well on its way to gathering a second ten percent of the browser market, this time mostly from medium-size and larger companies . And as a result of the migration, thousands of Web sites, internal applications, and intranets could also soon be on their way to implementing Microsoft-free, standards-based code.

You don't get opportunities like this every day. With any luck, Firefox's first seven months will only be a prelude to what lies ahead. And now, if it happens, you'll know where to mail your "thank you" notes.

Matt McKenzie is editor of Linux Pipleine. A permanent link to this article is available

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