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Orange UK exiles Firefox from call centres

£250 threat sends rogue reps back to IE6

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Yes, the corporate world is taking its sweet time upgrading from Microsoft's eight-year-old Internet Explorer 6, a patently insecure web browser that lacks even a tabbed interface. Take, for example, the mobile and broadband giant Orange UK.

According to a support technician working in the company's Bristol call centre - who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job - Orange UK still requires the use of IE6 in all its call centres, forbidding technicians from adopting Mozilla's Firefox or any other browser of a newer vintage.

This technician tells us that about a quarter of the Bristol staff had moved to Firefox after growing increasingly frustrated with IE6's inability to open multiple pages in the same window and overall sluggish performance. But a recent email from management informed call-centre reps that downloading Firefox was verboten and that they would be fined £250 if their PCs experienced problems and had to be rebuilt after running Firefox or any other application downloaded from the net.

"Under no circumstances should Firefox be downloaded," the email read. "Downloading any application from the internet is against Orange policy. There is NO support for Firefox in the operational environment. Orange Web applications are all designed to run on IE6 and therefore there is a likelihood that functionality will be impaired on Firefox."

Citing a conversation with Orange senior security consultant Julie Smith, the email goes on to say that because Firefox is not officially supported, security weaknesses won't be addressed by Orange's internal patching process. It's a fair argument - up to a point. IE6 is inherently less secure than newer browsers from Microsoft, Mozilla, and others. And you could certainly argue that Orange has had more than enough time to upgrade its infrastructure.

IE7 debuted in October 2006, the same month that Firefox 2 was released. Mozilla has since released Firefox 3 and Firefox 3.5. And Microsoft has unveiled IE8.

An Orange representative declined to comment on the matter.

The latest numbers from Stat Owl indicate that IE6 is still used by 18.5 per cent of all net surfers. And a fair portion of those surfers are likely using the aging browser because they're working for a company that has yet to spend the time, money, and effort needed to qualify a newer browser and to update browser-based apps. Stat Owl indicates that 42 per cent of corporate surfers use IE6. That means IE6 is more popular in the corporate world than any other browser.

But Orange UK is, well, an internet outfit, and one company support technician tells us that IE6 is hampering the company's ability to handle customer-service calls.

"If you've ever called Orange customer services and wondered why it takes so long to get served, it's because most of the customer service representatives are battling a system that crashes and fails regularly and because of using Internet Explorer 6 have to open about 10 separate pages just to deal with one customer's issues," the technician tells us.

The technician also says that hundreds of support reps in the Bristol call centre recently moved to Firefox in an effort to solve at least some of these problems. "Frustrated with working with Internet Explorer 6 and with a crushingly bad series of systems to work with, Orange employees had taken to downloading Firefox as an alternate browser," he says. "Although it wouldn't work with a large number of internal browser-based systems, it worked with enough to make it worthwhile. Multi-tabbed viewing, less drain on the processor, etc."

But then management made it clear that Firefox was not allowed. And because management's email warning was so severe - "if problems occur on PCs with unsupported software installed," it said, "there is a £250 charge for rebuilding each machine" - it seems that most Bristol technicians have abandoned the Mozilla browser.

"The ban has been effective because of how severe the warning was. Basically, we don't want to get caught using it, even though having to go back to IE6 and multiple windows is a real hassle," the technician tells us. "The delay to service is subtle but over a period of time starts to add up. It's like being told to bail out a sinking boat with a colander."

And then there are the security issues associated with using IE6. After all, these are call centres. The archaic browser's lack of updated protections could potentially expose customer data.

The technician also said that some of the Bristol call-centre staff asked management if they could use IE7 or IE8. But these newer, more-secure Microsoft browsers were explicitly forbidden as well.

Meanwhile, the Orange website has been urging its broadband customers to use a version of the new IE8 that's been "optimized for Orange." The company calls it "a better way to browse".

"Orange has partnered with Microsoft to offer an update of your current internet browsing experience without waiting for automatic updates," the company says. "Internet Explorer 8 includes great new features including enhanced tabbed browsing, safer browsing with embedded security services, improved zoom and accelerators to get to your favorite pages easier."

But in the call centre, it's IE6, all the time. On one level, the discrepancy is hardly surprising. Upgrading to a new internal browser costs money, and for telcos, margins are famously thin. They've been known to, shall we say, keep their call-centre costs to a minimum. ®

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