An example of an Oracle corporate app running in a desktop browser. (Credit: Oracle)

It is nearly impossible to hear the acronym "IE" in a workplace setting without somebody appending to it the word "sucks." To be more genteel about it, older versions of Internet Explorer on corporate computers simply do not reflect the quality of modern browsers. So why does that massive corporation you work for make you use IE 8 or older in the first place?

A complicated problem
Why you're forced to do at least some work in slow, standards noncompliant, security risk-prone legacy versions of Internet Explorer comes down to your employer's need to run corporate apps that sometimes were built more than 10 years ago. Back then, the apps were often built in ActiveX, a Microsoft programming framework that could get the job done a decade ago but now is horribly outdated.

"The needs of a large enterprise are much different than that of you or me on our personal computers. While the benefits of upgrading to a modern browser are numerous, we recognize that some organizations need to set their own upgrade pace," Microsoft representative Blair Cook wrote in an e-mail to CNET today. While the point about enterprise needs being different from home consumer needs is true, it doesn't change the fact that businesses are currently struggling poorly with the tension between upgrading apps, upgrading browsers, and upgrading hardware.

Large businesses need these apps to complete essential functions, but they can't upgrade the apps to modern technology because that means, generally, switching to the same programming tools that power modern smartphone and Web apps: HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript.

And as anybody who has tried to load a Webmail client like Gmail in Internet Explorer 8 or older knows, HTML5 simply does not work in older versions of IE.

"You get poorer performance if you're not on a great browser," Holger Hebert, the director of product management for Siebel at Oracle, explained in a phone conversation on Monday. "Performance goes from 86 seconds on IE 6 to under three seconds on IE 9."

So the simplest solution would seem to be to upgrade to Internet Explorer 9, which is tolerable in its support of HTML5, or IE 10, which is a modern, standards-compliant browser. Microsoft rightfully has been earning accolades for IE 10, a browser that can more or less hold its own against Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. But IE 9 and IE 10 come with one major drawback: They're not backward compatible.

IE 9 works only on Windows Vista and newer, and IE 10 works only on Windows 7 and newer -- and is still in release candidate mode for Windows 7. Chrome and Firefox, however, both work out of the box on Windows XP. So the massive corporations are faced with an operating system upgrade, if they want to stick with IE, and there is solid business logic behind that.

Microsoft offers the most robust enterprise deployment management tools of any browser vendor. Mozilla, which has an enterprise version of Firefox, does not offer businesses any kind of deployment tools for easily controlling installations on employee computers. Google is developing them for Chrome for businesses, but they're not up to Microsoft's speed, yet.

So, the corporation that you might work for is faced with a dilemma: Upgrade your desktop computer's hardware so that it can run IE 9 or IE 10 for its legacy-but-necessary internal apps, which means buying at least Windows 7-compliant hardware and licenses; or move away from Internet Explorer.

No simple solution
Microsoft touted research conducted by Forrester that said that 96 percent of businesses standardize on a single browser because it saves them money. For large businesses, Forrester reported, this could be up to $400,000 per year, per app.

Catalyst's configuration manager. (Credit: Browsium)

One solution is being promoted by ex-Microsoft employee Gary Schare, who has founded a company called Browsium that looks to help businesses manage multiple browser installations. "XP is still almost 40 percent of business desktops," he said. Browsium's Catalyst software is a third-party enterprise software management tool that allows businesses to force specific Web sites, such as corporate intranet sites that open Web apps, to open in specific browsers.

"Microsoft could help enterprises with migrations to new versions of IE," Schare said. "But then there's the Windows 8 problem, that it's not appealing to the enterprise. Microsoft is being held hostage to its own legacy."

Both enterprise versions of Chrome and Firefox allow for corporate IT departments to delay the auto-updates while still implementing the security patches that come with the six-week release cycle those browsers are on. Google also offers an MSI installer for group deployment of Chrome.

But there is more than a merely technological barrier to changing browsers. "The IT guys see it as a problem of more browsers equals more more security holes. So it's like a chicken-and-egg problem in enterprise," said Oracle's Herbert.

Just as Microsoft pushed its manufacturing partners to innovate new hardware configurations to support Windows 8, it wouldn't be surprising to soon see Redmond take a more active role in pressuring its major enterprise customers to upgrade from Windows XP to at least Windows 7. IDC has put out a white paper that can be best summarized as telling businesses that sticking around on Windows XP is bad not only from a computer security standpoint, but from a productivity standpoint, too.

Right before the launch of Windows 8, Redmond took the position that business upgrade paths may not go straight through to its new touch-centered OS. Stella Chernyak, senior director of marketing for Microsoft, wrote in October, "Organizations may need to take different approaches to their operating system migrations due to the specific needs of their environment. For some, moving their full company to Windows 8 will be the best choice, and for others it may be migrating first to Windows 7. Still, for many, it will be deploying Windows 8 side-by-side with Windows 7 for key scenarios, such as Windows 8 tablets for mobile users."

But what Microsoft wants to have happen and what will happen may not align. Herbert isn't bullish on Microsoft's prospects in the situation. "Microsoft is in a tough spot in my mind. Because they built a crappy browser to begin with, and they didn't invest in backward compatibility. Their customer's only option is to move away from IE. If you've got some stupid app that only works in IE6, you're not going to move away from it [just to adopt a newer version of IE]," Herbert said.

Internet Explorer's compatibility mode is not a realistic option for enterprises, either, said Herbert. "It's painful [to get compatibility mode in IE to work]. We have a 10 page document to configure settings for that."

For what it's worth, both Schare and Herbert said they would put their money on Chrome being the next big browser on corporate computers. "We enable different default browsers on different apps on every PC. I see the most momentum with Chrome," said Schare.

Herbert added that ActiveX remains a bugaboo for IT departments. "I think using a new browser is the easiest path. How hard is it to deploy Chrome? It's probably easier to deploy Chrome than to deploy a single ActiveX control."

Chrome has one other strong point that IE and Firefox lack. Currently, Chrome runs on all manner of computing device, from desktops to mobile. It runs on Macs, on Linux, on Windows XP and above, on iOS, and on Android. If the future of business computing is mobile, Chrome is far and away the best-positioned browser for the coming era of mobile enterprise.

It's just too bad that the mobile future doesn't solve the business problems of today.

Updated at 6:10 p.m. on February 12, 2013, with additional comment from Microsoft regarding Windows upgrade paths.