While Microsoft's Internet Explorer faces healthy competition with other browsers among consumers, in the enterprise it has long remained the de facto standard. But that could soon change as rivals -- particularly Mozilla and Google -- add features to their browsers that make them better suited for use across corporate desktops.
Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish pointed to a variety of factors that are making alternatives to IE more compelling for the enterprise, among them their growing popularity with the average Web user, which has taken market share away from IE.
"Being able to lead on the consumer browser side for desktops gives those people familiarity with those tools and can help push them out into an enterprise setting," she said.
That, coupled with antitrust pressures that will cause Microsoft to ship Windows 7 in Europe without IE8, something the company disclosed Thursday, is giving alternative browsers an opening among enterprise users, McLeish said.
But it will be the enterprise-friendly features -- in areas like installation, provisioning and setting group policies -- that really determine whether companies will use other browsers, she said.
Because of its long history with business software, Microsoft has the needs of the enterprise well in hand. The company offers a host of tools that make it easy for IT departments to install, provision and set group security and other policies for its browser on multiple desktops.
IE's inclusion with Windows also allows Microsoft to put tools in the OS that apply directly to the browser. For example, it offers so-called slipstream installation, which enables IE to be deployed as part of the Windows image that IT professionals create for corporate desktops. This eliminates the need to install the browser separately on each machine.
Microsoft has also offered, as part of the Group Policy settings in Windows, the ability to set policies for IE across desktops, which makes it easy for corporations to set security policies that help prevent malware from getting inside the firewall or sensitive information from going outside it.
Before Mozilla's Firefox browser started gaining traction among consumers several years ago, IE had been the standard browser for so long that many corporate applications were built to run on it and the Web protocols it supported, which -- until IE 7 and the forthcoming IE8 -- weren't always industry standard.
In fact, many companies that built applications for IE are still running IE6 to retain compatibility, analysts said. And even if they have updated to a newer version of IE, they use Window's Group Policy settings to render applications as if they are running on IE6 because they would not work otherwise, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.
"A lot of corporate Web applications were built to display best or display online in IE6, and to rewrite those applications is more hassle than it's worth," he said.
McLeish said that as companies think about migrating those older applications and their mandated browser from IE6, they might choose a competitive browser instead of upgrading to a newer version of IE. "I think we're going to see more and more people on IE6 figure out where they go and if an alternative can match [their needs]," she said.
Mozilla in particular is being aggressive with these companies, McLeish said.
In an interview this week, Mike Beltzner, a director of Firefox at Mozilla, said that along with the release of Firefox 3.5, due at the end of the month, Mozilla will offer tools for Web developers who want to recreate corporate applications using standards common to the modern Web -- standards that Microsoft only began supporting in earnest with IE7.
However, Mozilla still does not offer group policy for Firefox, analysts said. It also does not offer installation software to help administrators put Firefox on multiple desktops at the same time, though a forthcoming customization program planned for Firefox 3.5 will include that feature, Beltzner said.
Through the program, called Build Your Own Browser, companies will be able to use a Web application provided by Mozilla to specify certain browser customizations -- such as bookmarks to corporate intranets or portals. Companies will also be able to add their brands to the browser through technology called Personas, which allows them to create a "skin" with their logo.
Once the custom browser is created, the Web application then will send it to the company along with a program for installing it across corporate desktops, Beltzner said.
Firefox also has a leg up on IE in corporations that have standardized on Apple computers, including many creative agencies and publishing houses, Rosoff said. "In a lot of cases they mandate Firefox use because it's cross-platform and [sites] render almost identically on PCs or Macs," he said.
Google's Chrome browser is another option for corporate users, although it is a relative newcomer even to consumers, having been released only late last year.
Still, Chrome has a lot of mind share due to the power of the company behind it, and Google, which has its eye on the enterprise for its Web-based applications, is keeping corporate users in mind with Chrome as well.
Google added group policy controls to its Google Update technology, which updates its applications -- including Chrome -- to allow companies to control policy via Windows Group Policy, according to a Google blog. This allows network administrators to apply policies to Chrome across all computers on a particular domain, and also gives users with administrative privileges the right to set the policy on individual machines.
Google also provides an Administrative Template that allows IT administrators to select policies using standard interfaces such as a group policy editor, according to the blog.
Google's powerful position also could help it strike deals with PC makers in Europe to distribute Chrome on Windows 7, now that Microsoft is going to take IE8 out of the OS, Rosoff said.
"This looks like a great opening for Google to get a bunch of Chrome browsers installed," especially because Google's search-engine market share is even bigger in Europe than it is in the U.S., he said.