UK Web Focus

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FireFox – The Researchers Favourite Application?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 March 2007

Peter Miller recently suggested that “Every academic’s current favourite [FireFox extension] has to be the reference management tool Zotero.” In reply I suggested that “surely every academic’s favourite application must be FireFox?!” Peter and I would be in agreement that a combination of FireFox and a variety of FireFox extensions can provide a powerful platform for the researcher.

“Well that’s pretty uncontroversial” many readers of this blog would probably feel. But is this environment readily available for the researcher and those who support the research community (the librarians and IT support staff to name two groups)? This answer to this, I suspect, is no, not widely across the sector.

There will be understandable reasons for this. Institutional support costs can be reduced by having a small set of supported applications – and this includes not just the technical support in ensuring the applications works correctly but the user support costs in addressing user queries, providing documentation and training, etc.

Institutions will have been through several generations of Web browsers, starting with Mosaic (for the early Web adopters) followed by Netscape, after the Mosaic development team left NCSA and joined the Netscape Corporation. However when Netscape found themselves in a dominant position, they introduced a variety of proprietary extensions to the Web which, whilst being innovative, alienated some of the Web purists. This left Microsoft in the strange position of being able to position themselves, at one stage, as the browser with best support for Web standards. Around this time many institutions made a decision to ‘stick with the devil you know, with the result that Internet Explorer became the supported browser in many institutions.

This was probably a sensible decision at the time, with Netscape at the time being renowned for its flawed support for CSS (which meant that Web developers had to use tables for layout purposes for far longer than they should have done). Even when Netscape rematerialised as the open source Mozilla browser, its initial implementation was also flawed, as the developers themselves admitted. It was only when FireFox became available did we have a robust and reliable open source browser. And, even better, the browser was extensible, through its support for extensions. And even the embedded search box is extensible, allowing users to easily add new search facilities.

So FireFox must surely be provided to support the research community in their activities. But what are the possible barriers to realising this vision:

  • Institutions should be browser neutral: I would agree that Web sites should be usable in well-used browsers. However I would also argue that institutions should provide members of the institutions will the best tools to enable them to achieve their tasks, subject to the resource implications in providing such tools. FireFox will provide the rich environment, without any expenditure on licence costs.
  • Our admin system/VLE/etc. only works with Internet Explorer: If you have any in-house services which have browser dependencies, you will hopefully have learnt from this experience. In this case, you should be open with your user community and look to explore migration strategies.
  • Rolling out IE 7 will overcome the limitations in IE 6: IE 7 has been a long while in coming. It is much better then IE 6 (at last, IE users will have a tabbed interface). However IE 7 is still flawed in its support for standards and, as a platform, it is not as extensible as FireFox. This is understandable: Microsoft are happy to sell organisations an operating system as a platform and won’t want their customers to use a Web browser as a platform. But that’s Microsoft’s problem – and our opportunity, as a user community.
  • We’ll have to change our documentation, training courses, etc: Is this as big an issue as it was in the days on mainframe computing?
  • Provision of FireFox would not comply with our institutional IT strategy: In which case it seems timely to revisit the assumptions made in your IT strategy.
  • There may be complexities in allowing users to install a variety of browser extensions from multiple sources: This may be a legitimate concern. About a year ago I had to reinstall FireFox and various extensions after one extension caused FireFox to refuse to load. However since then, I have had no problems. Do any readers have experiences to share and solutions they would recommend?

It should be noted that I’m not suggesting you should deploy FireFox because it is an open source product. If you (or your organisation) is committed to open source, then you will know this. If, however, you are sceptical or neutral towards open source applications, then you should be willing to listen to my suggestion that you deploy FireFox because,to put it simply, it is the best product.

That’s my case for FireFox. As I’ve explained, I can appreciate the reasons why IE became ubiquitous in the past. But are there any longer legitimate reasons why institutions don’t have a migration strategy to FireFox in place?

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19 Responses to “FireFox – The Researchers Favourite Application?”

  1. you may have already seen this, but for more persuasive and “written for your grandma” reasons to migrate, see http://www.browsehappy.com

    Also, did you mention security?

  2. Peter Miller said

    I should mention that, much as I like it, Zotero is still in beta and doesn’t as yet have the breadth of function that dedicated software provides. It also depends on the Firefox embedded SQLite database though I note there are plans to facilitate synching, backup and data-sharing.

  3. Hi James – thanks for the URL. Note that I deliberately did not mention security issues. The aim of the posting was to suggest approaches for persuading institutions to change their recommended browser platform from IE to FireFox. To tell that that the platform they’ve been providing for the past 5 years or so is more likely to alienate, and can easily be rebuffed by saying that there have been no local problems during that time (whereas the institution has no direct experience related to the security of FireFox). I would suggest that the aim should be to instigate cultural change, rather than to demonstrate one’s ideological purity :-) (BTW I know that’s not what you’re suggested).

  4. Simply put, Firefox is not Enterprise-ready enough to be considered for migration from IE.

    Mozilla Corp have, time and again, stated they are not making any movements to support the enterprise. There is also plenty of evidence: there are no official enterprise deployable installaters, no official enterprise central management tools and, certainly, no enterprise level support. They have also not taken the sort of mindset that would allow this sort of migration to take place in any organisation.

    Let me give you a good example: lecturers and researchers often only have time during the summer to update coursework. A lot of this includes web-based materials and applications. Therefore, it makes sense for academic institutions to update their software and web browsers and plugins, etc, during the summer. Now, last summer, Firefox 1.5 was the supported version of Firefox. Mozilla only give 6 months post-new versions for people to upgrade before they stop supporting older versions. Firefox 2.0 came out on November 24th. That means Firefox 1.5 will stop being supported on April 24th. If a massive security bug comes out after that date, it will NOT be fixed on Firefox 1.5.x. I can imagine the sort of expletives that would come out from lecturers if I told them that “oh, by the way, I’ve updated Firefox to 2.0 and your websites don’t work” at the height of exam season. I’ve asked MoCo about this, and they replied they don’t have the resource to extend life cycles longer.

    Now, before anyone suggests I’m just an IT Professional arguing for Microsoft’s status quo, that couldn’t be further from the truth. For many places, the real killer is the lack of the a central management and configuration system for Firefox. There are a few out there made by the community, but probably the two biggest are Frontmotion (who combine it with their own custom install of Firefox) and FirefoxADM. FirefoxADM is reasonable for at least a six-figure number of Firefox deployments. I know this, because I wrote the tool!

    I have deployed Firefox virtually organisation-wide at the University of Edinburgh, but not for one second would I call it a migration – I recommend just having both on the system. Yes, you add the cost of the resource of maintaining both browsers (its really disingenuous to suggest that because Firefox is free, it costs no resources, by the way) but you give users flexibility and also the administrators the flexibility to lock down one of the browsers if one of them suffers a serious zero-day security issue (and Firefox has certainly had as many security issues as IE has, of late) allowing users to keep using the other browser. I also think it is wrong for some academics to try and strong-arm institutions into migrations when your best reasoning is dodgy, anecdotal evidence that “all academics love Firefox”.

  5. Sorry, that should say: “FirefoxADM is responsible for at least a six-figure number of Firefox deployments”. Should double check my editing…

    BTW: FirefoxADM page: http://sourceforge.net/projects/firefoxadm

    And you can get the newest version, which is a Group Policy Firefox Extension, on my blog (click my name!)

  6. Hi Mark – many thanks for your insighful comments. I have read your In-Cider Knowledge blog so I know this is an area that you have been actively involved in – and have also taken time to document your experiences.
    I’m pleased my posting has helped to surface the issues you’ve raised and the assumptions which Peter Miller and myself have (to be fair to both of us, we did invite responses to our assumptions – I don’t think either of us have tried to strong-arm anyone!).
    Would anyone like to respond to Mark’s comments?
    One suggestion I would make is to give everyone a memory stick containing Firefox Portable – but that is a somewhat touch-in-cheek suggestion and I know it’s not a scalable solution.

  7. Brian,

    Thanks for the reply. I’m not suggesting that people don’t install Firefox in institutions, just to be aware that as far as migration goes, that might not be the best suggestion. In fact, I’d suggest installing it on machines is a far better alternative than Firefox Portable, because at least you know you are getting the latest patches out to the systems when its installed and configured centrally!

  8. Hi Mark – thanks for the clarification. BTW one implicit assumption that I had was that once users were exposed to FireFox they would immediately appreciate its benefits. I suspect this is not necessarily true (I can remember being surprised to find users regretting the withdrawal of what I regarded as a pre-historic IBM mainframe when I was involved in user support many years ago!). So there will a need to address user issues as well as the technical support issues you’ve mentioned. On the subject of easing a migration from IE to FireFox, would the IE tab in FireFox be a useful migration aid, so you think?

  9. I’m glad Mark wrote that comment because it’s exactly what I was going to write when I read your post Brian.

    We are always looking to roll out Firefox across campus at Bath; there are very, very few users inside our IT department who don’t use it, but “the lack of the a central management and configuration system for Firefox” truly is a killer. IE can be managed completely remotely across the network by Active Directory administrators. With Firefox, this just can’t be done with any degree of support from Mozilla themselves. We’ve read Mark’s posts on the subject before and looked at firefoxadm but there just hasn’t been the time necessary to invest (our Windows team is very small).

    In fact about two years ago one of our Windows admins installed Portable Firefox via Active Directory to all the desktop PCs on campus but it was flakey at best, and I *think* it was removed the other day (I’d have to check that). In contrast, we’ll be rolling out IE7 in a few weeks’ time with the full tooling support that Microsoft gives us for the purpose.

    Maybe I should highlight that my wife, a teacher, completely despises Firefox?

  10. Hi Phil – your comments reminded me that the advantages of the Microsoft Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) were mentioned in a talk given by Brett Burridge on Browser Management at the Institutional Web Management Workshop way back in September 1999. I can remembering this causing some controversy at the time as Brett suggested that the management tools provided by Microsoft would make IE a easier to manage than the (then) fairly ubiquitous Netscape browser across a large organisation.
    I guess a question to ask is why FireFox (Mozilla) or the wider open source community hasn’t provided an equivalent solution after all that time (if, indeed, that is the case).
    BTW ‘despises’ is a strong term! Why?

  11. Ultimately, IE and Firefox are *just* web browsers. You load them, put in an address or click a bookmark and the page loads. Ultimately, a migration would be to most users: “click on the world with the fox thing” instead of “click on the blue e”. They have no attachment to IE apart from that (as long as you make sure their bookmarks are moved across!).

    However, the majority will just use Firefox as they did IE, and completely ignore themes and extensions (consider that with an apparent 100 million user base, the most popular extensions such as AdBlock/Plus and NoScript have around 12 million installs…).

    The other technical point about migration is, when you migrate a product you add one and remove the other. You CANNOT remove IE fully (unless you start removing certain DLLs which will eventually come back to bite you in the backside) so you end up with people who search out the blue E on their hard drive to run it, or an application calls the DLL to load it (such as, well, Explorer!). You end up surrepticiously supporting it or futilely trying to lock it down.

    Support them both, I say!

  12. I agree with the ‘Support them both’ comments above. We also provide both Firefox and IE to our users, and I don’t think many would notice the difference. For those that do it seems to me to make sense to let them make their own choice. The only area that we’ve actively ‘migrated’ to Firefox is for some of our older MacOS users, as you can’t update Safari to a usable version on MacOS 10.2 or earlier.

    Brian says one attitude is “Our admin system/VLE/etc. only works with Internet Explorer….”

    This touches on a more complex issue of how wide a range of browsers in terms of age we should support with our web apps. For an extreme example try to get your hands on a Mac with IE – hardly any website work because the CSS support is so poor, yet many Mac users still use it. Is this our problem or theirs?

  13. Some Bugzilla links: Windows 2000/XP/2003 Group Policies support, Provide Firefox MSI package.

  14. We are following the development of Zotero closely, and if this becomes something we could deploy enterprise wide, I suspect it is one of the things that would make us push for enterprise wide deployment of Firefox.

    At the moment we have Firefox and IE on our Student PCs (although IE is the default and more obvious browser), and staff can install what they want – although as most of our computers are Windows PCs clearly IE is the most prevalent browser.

    For some reason, my wife also dislikes Firefox. She cites the smugness of Firefox users for this dislike (‘oooh, I’ve got tabbed browsing, aren’t I clever, so much better than IE’ etc. etc.) – which, as a Mac user, is the kind of thing I’m used to.

    Also maybe of interest is this article from the Guardian, http://technology.guardian.co.uk/weekly/story/0,,2023367,00.html which describes the frustrations of Firefox 2.0, and looks back on the glory days of Cello (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cello_(web_browser))

  15. [...] TechWatch Report on Web 2.0Talk On Web 2.0 At PPARCOutlook 2007 – A User-Friendly Interface To RSS?FireFox – The Researchers Favourite Application?Wikipedia – Can We Provide Open Access For Training Materials?Does Web 2.0 Herald The End Of [...]

  16. Peter Miller said

    Mike Kaply, the Firefox Operator guy, is blogging on enterprise deployment at http://www.kaply.com/weblog/2007/03/15/deploying-firefox-2-within-the-enterprise-part-1/

  17. [...] out this excellent comment from UK Web Focus. The problem is that educational institutions tend to deploy new software during [...]

  18. [...] by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on May 4th, 2007 On 1st March 2007 I published a post on FireFox – The Researchers Favourite Application?. I had expected this to be an uncontroversial posting, so I was surprised when Mark Sammons, a Sys [...]

  19. [...] I find these figures disappointing and also somewhat surprising. Last year I wrote a post entitled FireFox – The Researchers Favourite Application? in which I was confident the the clear superiority of FireFox over its competitors would lead to [...]

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