The Lowly Web Browser: Mission-Critical Enterprise Tool?

Until recently, the Web browser was mostly not considered a to be a critical element in the enterprise arsenal.  The Web itself was, to most people, a source of entertainment and news, not serious business applications.  Today, that picture has changed dramatically.  Web browsers are used for all kinds of mission-critical knowledge sharing and collaboration applications, from search to online meetings, from customer relationship administration to content management.

In addition, knowledge workers typically customize their preferred browsers (most use Internet Explorer but an increasing number use Firefox, including myself) for their needs.  In my case, upon booting, I open Firefox with 24 tabs on a dedicated display.  Most windows contain information sources (Google News pages for various countries, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, among others), a few open social networking tools (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook), and others provide a window onto internal data.

But what if my browser no longer worked?  That actually happened to me last Thursday.

It all started after Firefox updated itself to 3.0.8 (reminder to self: turn off automatic update), something I didn’t know it had done at the time.  All of a sudden, my browser, with its 24 open tabs, just vanished.  At first, I thought it was a fluke so I restarted it.  It crashed.  I rebooted. The problem persisted.

I then noticed that Firefox had updated itself to 3.0.8 that day so I searched and found that there were numerous reports of spontaneous crashes.  I downgraded to 3.0.7 and the frequency of the crashes diminished greatly:; instead of a crash within 2 minutes or so of starting the browser, it would crash only after 20 or 30 minutes.  Clearly an improvement but not a long-term solution.

Our help desk told me that I had done everything they would have done short of reformatting my hard drive (why is this always the proffered solution?) or switching to IE (which, unless something has changed, won’t launch with 24 open tabs).

Suddenly it was déjà vu all over again as I recalled why I had upgraded to the beta version of Firefox 3.0 well over a year ago.  At that time, Firefox 2.2 had stopped cooperating.  Moving to the next version solved the problem.

Fortunately, I also recalled that there were reasonably stable beta versions of Firefox 3.1 available.  And lo and behold, Firefox 3.1 beta 3 was the answer and my 24-window browser has been crash free since last Friday.

This does, however, bring up a larger issue.  As more users rely on browser-based services for business use, the stability of browsers becomes increasingly important.  Organizations need to review browser usage with an eye towards support and backup so that any unexpected failures (such as the one I experienced) do not result in unacceptable downtime.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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