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?