How to Pick the Best Web Browser for Your Business

 
 
By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2009-05-29
 
 
 

How to Pick the Best Web Browser for Your Business


Once upon a time, important corporate applications were delivered to desktops or through classic client/server infrastructures. Now, many of the applications that your company relies on are delivered to the Web browser, and this makes the browser more important than ever when it comes to the enterprise.

With all of the major Web browser makers releasing new versions of their wares in the last year, users have several very good and innovative choices. You can choose the browser that works best for you or even choose to use several different browsers for different tasks.

However, few companies are willing to be this egalitarian when it comes to browsers.

Enterprises will most likely want to standardize on one or maybe two browsers that are acceptable for company use. By doing this, companies can ease support and development issues centered on corporate Web applications and general browser use.

For a look at the enterprise-friendly features of the latest browsers, click here.  

But how do you decide which browser your company will use? It isn't as simple as picking the best browser. You'll need a browser that works well with your important Web-based enterprise applications, isn't plagued with security issues and can be easily supported by IT.

In this report, eWEEK Labs looks at all of the major Web browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome and Opera Software's Opera.

I tested these browsers based on the criteria most important to businesses: administrative capabilities, application compatibility, security and performance.

I rotated use of the browsers on a daily basis, on different systems and platforms. I also ran some specific tests in areas such as application compatibility and performance. While I did do some testing with beta versions of some of the browsers, the majority of tests were performed using the currently shipping versions of the browsers: IE 8, Firefox 3.0, Safari 3.2, Chrome 2.0 and Opera 9.6.

No browser came out as the clear choice for any business. As with most applications, a company will need to look at the issues most important to it and pick the browser that best fits its needs.

Application Compatibility, Standards Support, Administration Features


 

Application Compatibility

For any business, the most important criterion by far when picking a Web browser is application compatibility. A Web browser could have the greatest features, fastest performance and best standards support, but if it can't run the sales applications you use, it's essentially useless.

For a long time, not only were many Web-based enterprise applications designed specifically to work with Internet Explorer, many would work only with IE.

However, the growth of AJAX-based Websites and improved standards support by Web developers has largely changed this. While IE-only Web applications still exist, they are by far in the minority. During general Web use in my tests, I rarely ran into any Websites that would refuse to run in any browser I chose, and I also didn't see many cases where a site displayed differently in one browser than it did in another.

However, in testing with enterprise applications, I did run into some small compatibility issues. These tests included not only the Web-based applications I use for my own job, but also the Web applications I review and test for eWEEK Labs.

Overall, Firefox had the least amount of issues with Websites and enterprise applications. Nearly everything ran smoothly using the browser, and I was able to access all of the functionality and features of most of the applications I tested. Most of the problems I encountered were in applications designed specifically for IE use.

Somewhat surprisingly, also running into problems with IE-only Websites was IE 8. During my tests, several sites and applications designed for IE use, including some Microsoft applications, didn't work properly with IE 8 in default mode. However, in all cases, switching to IE 8's IE 7 compatibility mode fixed the issues.

But while the compatibility mode fixes the problem, this is still a bit of a business issue. Workers will need to be trained to use compatibility mode, or the IT department will need to configure IE 8 to use compatibility mode for certain sites or turn it on all the time.

For most sites visited during my tests, Chrome, Safari and Opera worked well. However, I did run into some minor problems with several applications, mainly in the ability to take advantage of some embedded features, such as the WYSIWYG editor in applications such as Mambo.

In some, but not all, of these cases, the main culprit is developer laziness. Some developers set up their applications to look for the most common browsers (namely, IE and Firefox) and reject other browsers in the same way they reject old browsers. This can sometimes be fixed by changing the user agent in these browsers to identify as another browser, but this probably isn't something most businesses would want to do.

Standards Support

The browsers that do the best when it comes to solid support of Web standards are Opera, Chrome and Safari, all of which do well in tests such as the Web Standards Project's Acid3.

Firefox also does well when it comes to standards support, although it is behind the top three performers. While IE 8 has much better standards support than previous versions of IE, it is still well behind the other current-generation Web browsers.

One would expect that the browsers that have the best standards support would be the ones that run the widest number of Websites and applications without problems. But it turns out that the opposite is true.

How does this happen? For one thing, again, developers tend to write for the most popular browsers-IE and Firefox-so sites and applications work best on these browsers despite their lower standards support. Also, throughout the history of the browser wars, challenger browsers have tended to focus on good standards support, and then become less enamored of that support once they gain market dominance.

This brings up an interesting dilemma for IT managers. After all, standards support is all well and good, but it doesn't mean much if a browser can't run the applications you need to use.

But standards support is important to a browser's ability to take advantage of cutting-edge Web technologies. Many companies that stayed wedded to older browsers found themselves sitting on the sidelines during the Web 2.0 boom as competitors gained an edge by taking advantage of new technologies.

Administration Features

For many enterprises, customization and management options are important for any widely deployed application. And, just as many companies want to lock down and define the capabilities of the operating systems they deploy, locking down and defining the capabilities of the browsers they use is key.

By far, the browser that offers the most options in the way of customization, management and deployment is Internet Explorer.

Most of this capability comes by way of the free IEAK (Internet Explorer Administration Kit). Use of the IEAK tool, recently reviewed here, makes it possible for a company to build customized IE packages that control what features are available, predefine settings, lock down security options and even add corporate branding.


How the Browsers Match Up for the Enterprise

  Browser

Web App Compatibility

Standards Support

Security

Administration Features

Extensibility

Browser Features

Platform Support

Performance

Chrome

Good

Excellent

Fair

Fair

Fair

Good

Fair

Excellent

Firefox

Excellent

Good

Fair

Good

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Fair

IE 8

Good

Fair

Fair

Excellent

Good

Good

Fair

Fair

Opera

Good

Excellent

Fair

Fair

Good

Good

Excellent

Excellent

Safari

Good

Good

Fair

Fair

Fair

Good

Good

Good


Even without the IEAK, IE would still be tops in this area due to its integration with Microsoft deployment and updating tools. Companies can easily make sure that employees are using the most up-to-date version of the browser and can tie it into the corporate patching and deployment infrastructure.

A distant second in this area is Firefox. There is an extension for Firefox called the CCK Client Customization Kit) Wizard that offers basic customization options, but it's pretty limited when compared with IEAK.

Firefox and Chrome both have integrated updating mechanisms that make it possible for users to keep their browsers updated. And, while both Safari and Opera will let users know when the browser version is out of date, both require users to download the new updates and run installation routines, something that can be difficult on locked-down corporate systems.

Extensibility, Browser Features, Security


 

Extensibility

For many people, a browser is just a browser, and it doesn't need to do anything but display Web pages. But on the modern Web, browsers are often expected to do much more.

Users expect their browser to make it easier to blog or use Twitter, to display up-to-date information and news, to tie into corporate applications, and to be easily updated to use the latest and greatest applications and services.

In the area of extensibility, the undisputed king is Firefox. Firefox's large and diverse add-ons community makes it possible to add nearly any kind of functionality to the browser. With the right combination of extensions, Firefox can essentially become an operating system in a browser.

IE generally has good support for any major plug-in and has a fairly decent set of add-ons and tool bars that can be used to extend the browser. In IE 8, the new Activities and Web Slices features make it possible to add integrated Web content and information directly in the browser.

The other browsers typically support most of the popular plug-ins and offer some add-ons, with Chrome probably coming in last in terms of its ability to be extended by users.

For businesses, the ability to extend the functionality of a browser can mean the difference between an enterprise application that works with the browser as opposed to one that is just displayed in the browser.

Browser Features

In a traditional browser review, I would probably start with strength of features. However, while cool new features are good for business use, they probably aren't at the top of the evaluation list.

Still, they can be valuable. New and innovative features can make it easier for users to work with Web applications, handle Web information overload and generally improve their productivity.

Each of the browsers I tested includes features such as tabbed browsing and auto-suggest address bars that help when browsing the Web.

Many of the features now found in browsers were first introduced in Opera, and the Opera browser is still one of the richest environments for power Web users who want to manage information using a variety of different methods.

Chrome, while bare-bones in some ways, has some nice user interface touches, such as having search built into the address bar. Safari 3.x is even more bare-bones, although the forthcoming Safari 4 has some very nice iTunes-style interface touches.

IE 8 holds its own in terms of features, especially with the well-implemented Activities, which makes it possible to view information in context within Web pages. Firefox is actually somewhat old-school in terms of interface features, though add-ons can greatly change this.

An important feature found in both Firefox and Chrome is the ability to build applications that can run offline. This can be especially important in business-use scenarios.

Security

When it comes to the issue of security, none of today's browsers excel. Indeed, Web browsers have become one of the most common avenues through which malware and malicious code spread through business systems.

Fixing this has been a tough issue for most browser vendors, since locking down a browser also has the effect of making it less effective as a tool for accessing a wide variety of information on the Web.

Browser makers have been working to improve their applications' security, and all of the modern browsers have taken essentially the same steps to boost security.

These include using services to warn users before they surf to known malware and phishing sites, and supplying improved information about sites' domains and security certificates.

A nice additional feature for IE users is Protected Mode, which runs IE in a special process where it is not allowed to access system resources outside of those needed by IE. However, this feature works only for those using IE on Windows Vista.

All that said, when it comes to security track records, no browser should be bragging. Every browser has had a least one major security problem in the last year or so.

Several organizations have tried to measure the frequency of problems found in browsers, but since all the companies report bugs and security holes differently, these numbers aren't typically comparisons of apples to apples.

When it comes to security, companies should not rely on browser vendors. Make sure that your network and system defenses are strong enough to prevent any problems that the browsers allow, and apply fixes quickly when issues do arise.

Platform Support, Performance


 

Platform Support

It used to be that companies were concerned with one issue when it came to platform support: Does the browser run on Windows? For many companies, however, it's not that simple anymore.

While the numbers are still small compared with those of Windows PCs, Macs are definitely becoming more common in many companies. And more than a few employees may be accessing Web applications on Linux, especially with the widening use of netbooks.

The two top players for platform support are clearly Firefox and Opera. Firefox is available on Windows, Mac and Linux, and runs nearly identically on all of them. Opera also runs on these platforms (although new versions aren't always released on all platforms at the same time), and Opera has an excellent mobile implementation.

Safari, of course, runs on the Mac and iPhone platforms, and while it runs on Windows, the implementation isn't quite identical (though the Version 4 beta is better in this area than previous versions).

Both IE 8 and Chrome are Windows-only. IE 8 will likely stay that way, but Google officials have said the company plans to release Chrome on other platforms.

Performance

When browser makers compare themselves, one of the main areas they focus on is performance. At one point or another during the last year, each browser has been declared the fastest in one way or another.

In my opinion, for the most part these are comparisons of fast versus faster. It's been a long time since I've seen a browser that I consider slow in any way. And when I have seem a browser run slowly, it was either due to a bug in that release (and speed was improved upon updating) or it was due to issues with a plug-in or extension.

Still, there are differences in browser performance, especially in the area of JavaScript performance. Rather than run one test to look at performance, I accessed several tests freely available on the Web and ran each browser against them. Since most of these tests come from or are associated with a browser vendor in some way, it was no surprise that some browsers seemed to do best in the tests associated with them.

The browsers that performed the best in these tests tended to be Chrome and Opera. Safari was just behind these browsers, with Firefox and IE bringing up the rear.

Like taking your car to a racetrack to see how fast it can go, running these tests must give results that mean something. But just as that time trial on the racetrack won't tell you how your car will perform in rush-hour traffic, these tests won't tell you how these browsers will run your corporate applications.

Performance does matter, but only so far as it impacts the applications you use in your business. So, rather than rely on external (and potentially biased) performance reports, make sure that the browsers you use in your company perform well with the applications you use.

In the end, that is the key to picking a browser for your company: Don't pick the one that is the fastest, the most standards-compliant or the most feature-rich. Pick the one that meets your specific needs the best.

Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at jrapoza@eweek.com.

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