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Will Chrome Find a Home With SaaS?

Will Chrome Find a Home With SaaS?

The launch of a new open source browser, Chrome, seemed like an audacious move even for Google. Although Firefox has managed to break IE's stranglehold, the browser market isn't exactly wide open. Still, Chrome has some features that make it a particularly interesting choice for on-demand applications -- and it might even sway some corporate decision makers who are still on the fence about SaaS.

By Erika Morphy
10/07/08 4:00 AM PT

It didn't take long for NetSuite to cozy up to Google. Shortly after the Web conglomerate rolled out its open source browser Chrome last month, the SaaS suite provider announced its support.

NetSuite was also the first vendor to announce support for the iPhone and for Firefox 3.0, Mini Peres, NetSuite's vice president of product marketing, told LinuxInsider. Support for Chrome, though, may prove to be an especially intriguing alternative for its customer base -- primarily because it is so Ajax-friendly.

"We are cautioning users that Chrome is still in beta," Peres said, acknowledging that it has been the target of some complaints.

Users who take advantage of NetSuite's support "may see things that are related to the browser that have nothing to do with NetSuite's performance," she cautioned.

Despite these potential problems, "NetSuite decided it was important to give users a choice," Peres concluded.

Internet Explorer Still Rules

Just about every Software as a Service vendor supports Internet Explorer for obvious reasons: True, its market share may be slipping against Firefox and Safari, but IE is still the dominant browser by far.

At the same time, SaaS vendors have come to realize it is smart to support at least some of the alternative browsers if they want to maximize market share, Yankee Group analyst Sheryl Kingstone told LinuxInsider, especially as more companies diversify and as SaaS itself moves closer to commoditization.

At one time, the most popular browser might arguably have been Netscape -- before IE stomped it into oblivion. Its successor, Mozilla's Firefox, has become the favorite among open source devotees, but its use is not limited to Linux systems -- Firefox has scampered onto many computers that run Windows operating systems and even some Macs, which run OS X. So, Chrome's entrance poses an interesting question -- namely, whether its open source chops and Google's backing can help it leapfrog Firefox to gain the second place spot among the SaaS user group, especially after its initial kinks are worked out.

Kinks aside, Chrome has garnered praise for its compatibility with Web 2.0.

"We expect Chrome to be an excellent browser for SaaS applications -- it looks to be a winner with great features for performance, reliability and security," said Daniel Druker, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Intacct, which offers on-demand financial management and accounting software. Intacct is readying its own support for Chrome.

"We're also excited about Google's focus on rich media -- for example, there are lots of ways video can add value to SaaS applications," Druker told LinuxInsider.

Making the Jump

There are other considerations, though, that vendors must take into account -- considerations that should ease any concerns Microsoft might have about IE's continued dominance, at least in the near term.

As with any tech investment decision, it comes down to whether the costs of supporting an additional browser are worth the benefits, Kingstone said. For the moment, at least, browser support is not a competitive differentiator among SaaS vendors -- except perhaps at the outermost margins.

The cost for supporting an additional browser like Chrome is largely a function of how much it differs from a browser that you already support, Druker noted. Every SaaS firm supports IE 6 and 7, as Internet Explorer still has the most market share.

"IE 8 is about to come out, and every SaaS firm is going to need to do the work to support it too," said Druker. "So, your costs are those of putting Chrome through your [quality assurance] testing suite to see if there are any incompatibilities with the browsers you already support, and then you have costs to make changes to your SaaS application to work around those differences."

User Patterns

Users have to make the same cost-benefit decision -- which the vendor has to weigh as well, even if it would like to forge ahead with a next-gen browser.

After Mozilla introduced its latest upgrade of Firefox earlier this summer, Salesforce.com's Jerry Sherman shared the vendor's thinking on browser support in a blog post.

Firefox 2.0 usage among Salesforce.com users has increased dramatically, to 14 percent, he noted. Meanwhile, IE6 usage has dropped a fair amount, as users have upgraded or switched browsers. Still, IE6 is the choice of more than half of all users who access Salesforce.

"Why do we pay attention to browser usage? One reason is that recently we embarked on efforts to build the next-generation [user interface] of Salesforce, which will include using JavaScript and other technologies that are, frankly, a challenge for IE6 to handle. In addition to working on next-generation UI, we frequently wrestle with random, difficult-to-reproduce, hard-to-fix bugs in IE6. And while we admittedly love a challenge ... working around bugs in older browsers isn't really how we want to spend our time."

Salesforce.com isn't planning to end support for IE6 any time soon, Sherman assured readers. "IE6 is still far too heavily used by our customer base, and upgrading to IE7 or switching to another browser is too much to ask in the short term. However, as time goes by and more of our users upgrade to IE7 or switch to other browsers like Firefox and Safari, we move closer to the day when we will drop official support for IE6."

Security is another factor that must be taken into account, TriCipher VP Jon Brody told LinuxInsider.

Simply put, allowing employees to use multiple browsers complicates a corporate security policy. It results in off-network access to corporate databases, as well as inconsistent user ID and password management, he explained.

The Lure of Chrome

For all of these reasons, any one browser that comes to dominate corporate systems is not going to be easily dislodged from its perch.

However, as Chrome works its way through the development lifecycle, this corporate tech reality may ultimately work in its favor. For some companies, Chrome may represent the tipping point in their decision to adopt SaaS, Brody suggested.

"Chrome really is terrific," he said. "There are a couple of features that will light a fuse in the minds of a SaaS user." These range from its user-friendly features to the performance advantages it has for Javascript-based applications.

"Chrome provides a much friendlier and more pleasant environment for SaaS, and I think it could well help accelerate SaaS adoption," predicted Brody.


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