Corporate Applications vs. Browser Rapid Release Cycles

I write this post not as a web developer but instead as a user of corporate applications. The latest and greatest web applications are important and I fully encourage their adoption. Rapid browser releases have accelerated the use of these and for that I am grateful. It does have the side effect of causing heart ache with users of systems which cannot be upgraded as frequently (read: most of them).

The days of “Best viewed in Netscape” are still in my memory but probably not in the memory of young developers, maybe even in their mid-20s. Depending on your browser of choice, a web page may or may not work. Perhaps it would mostly work. Or if you were lucky, it would work perfectly in both IE and Netscape. Web development has improved and for most functions all web browsers will work. Thank you to all responsible parties for the evolution. Unfortunately, I have concerns around web applications which cannot be upgraded as frequently as many web applications can. Corporate web applications.

Yes. Corporate web applications mostly suck. But for millions of people in the world, they're a fact of life. In a day, I may run product configurations in one web application, submit PTO in another, and submit documents for review in a third. These may be bad examples since the latter two very much seem to require IE. But lets say they didn't. Lets also say I had to configure corporate infrastructure components. The examples given are just two random ones, but both are configured largely through a web interface. Both are potentially mission critical to your company and are treated with care. Changes are completed during specific “change windows” or risk reprimand. Mission critical infrastructure components are deliberately not bleeding edge as that lends to a stable environment. Whatever browser support a vendor releases a version with is what may be in place for years.

This mentality flies in the face of the rapid development world of the web. New feature? Push. Tweak to CSS? Push. Okay, maybe not as aggressive as I imply but it sure moves faster than corporate applications and infrastructure which are upgraded every two years. The result is a server or appliance running code which is a year old supporting, say, Firefox 21 and 22 and Internet Explorer 9, 10, and 11. Firefox releases a new major version approximately every six weeks. IE is slower but is releasing browsers at a more rapid pace than before. As I write this, Firefox 28 is running on my computer.

I've focused on just one or two applications. But what if you run an ERP system which is compatible with IE 8? A database administration front end compatible with IE 9 or 10. Appliance front ends compatible with Firefox 21 and 22. Firefox and Chrome auto-update (can be disabled) but then you're left with security vulnerabilities. A rat's nest of browser dependencies quickly appears and the user is stuck navigating it.

Admittedly, most applications do work with future versions. Moving to Firefox 28 when something is compatible with 27 typically doesn't break it. But I have certainly seen compatibility problems with a gap of more than a handful of versions. But a corporation requiring a stable environment cannot be upgrading code every time a new browser is released every three or six weeks. Furthermore, vendors aren't releasing updates when browsers are updated so there is nothing to even upgrade to.

Browser compatibility due to rapid release cycles is hardly the largest problem web developers and corporate IT has to deal with. However, it is a challenge of some size and one which is exacerbated by multiple browsers with frequent releases. I don't really have a solution but I think the answer lies in the middle. On one hand, a release every six weeks feels a bit much to me and generally unnecessary (my opinion). On the other hand, corporate IT is often overly stagnant and rigid (example: resistance to BYOD). Finally, the vendors would need an upgradable front-end patch method which upgrades only the web code and leaves the middle and back end application layers alone.

Web development and compatibility has improved greatly over the past decade. I fear the possibility of icons on corporate applications saying “Best viewed in Firefox 28, 29, and 30 and IE 10”.