Some Companies Switching From Microsoft's IE Browser

Penn State University recently advised students against the use of IE. A number of small companies interviewed by are following suit, citing similar security concerns.

January 18, 2005

8 Min Read

A month after Penn State University advised 80,000 students to drop Microsoft's Internet Explorer for alternatives such as Mozilla's Firefox, more than 100 companies tell InformationWeek they're doing the same.

After Penn State's decision, polled readers to gauge the move's significance: Was this an isolated example of an over-cautious school administration or was it destined to become a marketwide trend? While the results may fall short of a trend--in many cases they involve companies with fewer than 100 employees--there were enough organizations making the switch to deem their actions noteworthy.

A full 106 of the 186 respondents--57%--to our unscientific poll had recommended to computer users that they switch from IE to an alternative browser. In almost every instance, these organizations said concern over IE security problems hasn't been overstated. And even some of those who have not recommended dropping IE felt its problems aren't overblown. A small minority expressed no qualms about IE and have not recommended switching from IE.

Asked to comment on the responses to our poll, Microsoft, through its public relations agency, sent a lengthy E-mail (full text of E-mail) stating, "We're aware that some people have recommended against IE, but we also know that hundreds of millions of users use Windows because of its broad ecosystem of applications that are constantly being tested and implemented." Also in its reply, Microsoft states, "Microsoft exhaustively tests all new updates to IE (security and otherwise) to ensure that applications and Web sites continue to behave as expected."

Because of the unscientific nature of the poll, perhaps the most reliable information comes from detailed interviews with those working with the two browsers.

The largest company we interviewed (we spoke only to those that completed the survey) had just shy of 100 employees. Some had informal business-technology operations, where people with an affinity for computers become de facto tech staff along with their other duties.

Penn State, on the other hand, has 80,000 students. Its Information Technology Services department made the move "because the threats are real and alternatives exist to mitigate Web browser vulnerabilities," according to a statement the department issued. But clearly, the university's decision is having ripple effects.

Cliff Kachinske, for instance, said Penn State's decision prompted him to recommend that the almost 100 employees of his company, Advanced Control Systems, drop IE. Advanced Control Systems has no formal IT department. Kachinske manages the company's quality-assurance department and keeps business-technology systems running.

He has no way of knowing if people followed his advice, he says, though he hasn't used IE since the first stable version of Firefox was released.

Asked if he sees a day when Microsoft can make IE secure enough to win him back, Kachinske says, "Anything can happen. But Firefox is a better browser." Brian Thomas, computer network system administrator at KCPT-TV, agrees that Firefox is superior when it comes to security, and he's recommended the 72 employees of the station switch to Firefox. Some people don't get a choice in the matter, however.

"If we have problem children who are frequent fliers with the help desk, and their computers are always full of this and full of that, we'll disable the IE directory. Then they have to use Firefox," he says.

Martin High, the IT director for Valeo Behavior Health Care, has suggested employees of the nonprofit community mental-health center not use IE. Internet Explorer is still the standard at the center, he says, but "I don't know how far in the future that will be the case."

High says he's evaluating Firefox and looking at Novell's SuSE products. "I'm rethinking the whole Microsoft world. It's kind of sad," he says. As a nonprofit, Valeo gets discounts on Microsoft software. "But sometimes a good deal is not a good deal," he says.

The hospital uses IBM AIX for its main application server and Red Hat Linux for its E-mail server. "I see us going more toward Linux in the future," High adds.

Peter Way, VP of investment-research firm Peter Way Associates, says he took IE off all 12 of his company's computers five years ago. "I saw IE was a security risk, a resource hog, and it was slow as far back as version 4," Way recounts.

Way's firm supports only Firefox and Opera Software's Opera browsers. He has found that the business can compete effectively sans Microsoft, he says. "We come from a computing background and have engineered our systems not to be dependent on Microsoft," Way says. "We've designed our site to be browser-neutral and secure. We use a limited number of screen graphics, and once the customer logs on to our site, that entire end of the site is done under secure transport mode."

At about the same time Penn State was making its recommendation to drop IE, Ben McLendon, director of IT for the Valdosta Women's Health Center, says he was doing the same.

"I recommended that people move to Firefox several weeks ago," says McLendon, who supports about 30 employees. "It seems less prone to malware." He hasn't made the same recommendation to the hospital's business office, though, because it's protected by a physical firewall, anti-spam software on the E-mail server, and server-based Symantec antivirus apps. The rest of the facility's users are not as protected.

McLendon's decision to leave IE alone in the business office touches on the inevitability of a browser that had a market share of 90.6% as of Jan. 7, according to the Web-analytical-application maker WebSideStory Inc. Firefox had a 4.6% market share, according to WebSideStory. The remaining market share belongs to Netscape and other browsers. Firefox is, however, nibbling at IE's dominance. In October, IE owned 93% of the market, while Firefox had 2.6%.

Not everyone believes swapping out IE in favor of Mozilla is the answer, or even feasible. "To say you should drop IE because of security concerns, it's just not that simple," says Chris Varner, director of IT for Financial Management Solutions, which creates performance reports and work schedules for 77 banks and credit unions worldwide. He supports about 30 people.

"I've been doing this for 17 years, and there are a lot of programs written to work on corporate intranets using IE," Varner says. "You can't dump IE. If another browser could claim the same functionality and the same level of security or better, then fine."

A solution to the problems of browser security need not come from Microsoft or even Mozilla, says Joe Gillis, IT director of The Beal Companies LLP, a commercial real-estate firm. "Rather than jumping browsers, I'm looking for a utility" to come along, he says. Viruses are a nonissue for him, Gillis says, because of filtering applications, and the same will be true over time with worms and spyware. He also feels that Internet service providers could play a more active role in security online.

Entrepreneur James Yenne says too much is made of Internet Explorer's security problem but too little is made of its performance problems. The minute Firefox is a mass-market phenomenon, he says, the black hats will hammer it as relentlessly as they do IE.

In its E-mail to us, Microsoft is in line with Yenne: "As long as malicious hackers exist, there is always an opportunity for online threats and no browser is immune to this. We will continue to work to improve security for our customers by working on technical innovation, improving updates, and working with law-enforcement agencies worldwide to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice."

Though Yenne, founder of tech startup Activera, says he hasn't recommended to anyone that they switch, he admits frustration when having a large number of IE browser windows open at a time causes his laptop to perform "dog slow."

"Microsoft isn't maintaining it. They haven't done much good with it in the last couple years," he says.

Indeed, while denying assertions by some that the IE development team has been disbanded, Microsoft has declined to say how many people make up the team. Its execs say tweaks are being made periodically. And, in fact, when Microsoft released Windows XP SP2 last summer, there was an upgrade to IE, called Internet Explorer 6 SP2. The only problem is that the update only works with XP SP2.

The next general upgrade for IE is scheduled to coincide with the debut of Longhorn, the next version of Windows, in 2006. Again quoting from the E-mail from Microsoft: "It's too early to provide a list of specific [IE] features, but major investments are being made in the areas of end user features, security and privacy, and developer support (for both add-on and Web-site developers)."

For some, those words are not half the promise needed to keep them in the IE fold. And Microsoft is unlikely to lose much sleep over that, given its near-lock on the market. Like the open-source movement in general, it remains to be seen if Firefox will force a bead of sweat at Microsoft. It wouldn't be the first upstart app designed to address a Microsoft shortcoming that was squished by a last-minute feature update by Microsoft.

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