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Some Thoughts on Firefox @ DoS

BY Matthew Burton | Wednesday, July 15 2009

I wrote a Web application for a federal agency, and last week, it was deployed. Two days ago, a systems administrator wrote to tell me that he was experiencing errors when using the app with Internet Explorer 6.

"And you will," I wanted to respond. The next day, I woke up delighted to see that YouTube is phasing out support of the browser that is the bane of every Web developer.

And then, as reported yesterday on PDF, employees at the State Department can't use Firefox. And they're annoyed. They're used to using one thing at home. Why can't they use it at work?

It's the cost of maintenance, Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy responded. Yes, it's true: someone has to be in charge of deploying updates, responding to support requests, ensuring compatibility...that takes time.

My problem with this is that it only accounts for the tangible costs of browser support: the department can easily estimate how much Firefox would cost them by multiplying a number of hours times a dollar rate. Voila: Firefox costs MILLIONS to support! Not worth it.

But what about the hidden costs of supporting the *wrong* browsers, and the intangible benefits of supporting tools that users know and love?

Old browsers get you old tools. When agencies support outdated browsers, they get outdated Web applications. When I left the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2005, our primary tool was Netscape-only. The app was crap. What else would you expect from developers too lazy and sloppy to support nothing but Netscape? Good developers--the developers the government should want to attract--develop for tomorrow's Web browsers, not yesterday's. If the government wants better software tools for its employees, it has to create the right environment for developers. And good developers hate old browsers. There is no metric for the Web applications you're missing out on.

User proficiency = higher productivity. According to the W3C, Netscape had a 3% market share in 2005. That means that we were being forced to use something that nobody was familiar with. And that means lower productivity. People at the State Department don't want Firefox because it has a cuter logo. They want it because that's what they use at home: they know the key-commands, they know how to work with tabs, they know how to search its history, they love the add-ons...all of these factors make for faster and happier workers. There is no metric for employee happiness derived from Web browser preference.

Safer browsers = safer networks. Firefox is safer than IE. It's simple. No, Firefox isn't bullet-proof. But it's better. Browser vulnerabilities are serious. If agencies don't have a metric for this, they'd better get one soon. After last week's DDoS debacle, I'm sure they're in the works.