Browser Wars Extend to the State Department

Doug Miller by Doug Miller, SafeGov.org
Friday, March 02, 2012

In a January Town Hall Meeting devoted to the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy Review, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that State would be deploying both Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) and Google’s Chrome browsers.

Google issued a press release announcing that State was (in the words of a Department spokesman) “the first U.S. cabinet department to make Chrome available department-wide.” Google neglected to mention that Chrome was being deployed as an option only intended for browsing external sites, while IE8 would be the mandated standard for use with State’s own web sites and internal applications (which are not compatible with Chrome).

It is interesting to see this announcement on the heels of recent coverage over concerns about Google’s new privacy policy which went into effect yesterday. Given that Google will combine information across all services - and Chrome is one of those services - perhaps there are some at the State Department who will wish to re-evaluate this decision while determining the impact on State data. This is especially relevant given that Chrome is not covered under Google Apps for Government contracts.

But there is an interesting backstory to this deal which says a lot about how IT deployment decisions are really made in the conservative environment of a large Federal agency. In what must surely be an historical first for American Secretaries of State, Clinton actually offered a rather lucid technical explanation of why her IT department decided to deploy two browsers instead of just one.

It turns out that State is currently using a very old version of Internet Explorer – presumably IE6. The Department’s thousands of users have long been frustrated by the performance of this decade-old browser, and the lack of timely updates. But the Department also has a large number of external web sites and internal web-based applications whose technical quirks make extensive testing of any new browser essential before deployment. So, as happens so often in private enterprises, the Department’s IT staff was torn between two conflicting pressures: give the users something faster and convenient right now, or give them something that actually works with the organization’s existing mission-critical applications. The Department had been testing IE8 for quite some time, and its prolonged test cycle proved to be slower than Microsoft’s release cycle for new browser versions. By the time State was ready to deploy IE8, IE9 was already out and IE10 was in sight on the horizon. The IT staff concluded that proceeding with the deployment of IE8 was the only option that would give users a faster browser that worked with the Department’s mission-critical applications. But it would mean giving them a browser that was already one generation behind the latest and greatest. Since Google Chrome is free, perhaps State’s IT staff decided to offer Chrome as an optional second browser for the less-critical activity of browsing external web sites.

Net net, State Department employees will be using IE8 for their critical business applications, and will have the option to use Google Chrome for viewing external web sites. Meanwhile, according to Secretary Clinton, State employees will get IE10 in February 2013.

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