All in the <head> – Ponderings and code by Drew McLellan –

Firefox and The IEAK

A couple of years ago the team I was working on was given the task of creating an ISP sign-up CD for a client. Although they’re a bit of a dated concept these days, sign-up CDs are those annoying discs that people like AOL poke through your letterbox, and others jam in your hand as you’re walking through the mall. These CDs include software for creating a new account with the ISP, and then configuring your computer to use that account. Significantly, they nearly always contain a customised and branded web browser. Nine times out of, well, nine, this is Internet Explorer.

When I was working on this project (I won’t say who the client was, but you’ve heard of them) we too needed to build a branded version of IE. At the time Microsoft provided a free tool called the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK), which was basically just a Windows-style wizard. Each step of the wizard asked a few simple questions – the name to appear in the title bar, which custom graphics to use, what default favorites (bookmarks) to include – all that sort of thing. Clicking ‘finish’ spat out a brand new build of IE, installer and all. It was that simple. The availability and ease of use meant that anyone who fancied the idea could put out their own version of IE to their customers and mandate its use – as many ISPs did.

Of course, one of the great things about open source projects like those run by Mozilla is that there are no restrictions on what you can change should you decide to make a custom build. As all the source is freely available, you are not restricted to the set of options offered by a tool like the IEAK – you can basically do what the hell you like, compile it and distribute.

But how many people actually can?

I’ve taken a look at doing this myself for an upcoming project. There’s a comprehensive list of instructions on building Mozilla browsers from source, which is great. But look at the work involved. To build a copy of Firefox for Windows I’m into downloading (or purchasing?) hundreds of megabytes of developer software from Microsoft, installing a bunch of open source tools, setting a heap of environmental variables, getting the source from CVS – and we’re not even looking at customisation yet. For that I’m into learning my way around the source and configuration files. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this situation – it’s typical and necessary. However, it’s not conducive to being able to knock out a quick customised version of Firefox.

Despite the conceptual freedoms of being totally customisable, for the average business IT manager Mozilla browsers like Firefox are less customisable than IE is. It’s far easier and therefore cheaper to knock out a crappy IE build than one of Firefox, even if Firefox is preferred. This has to change.

My first suggestion would be for Mozilla to provide a directory of developer contacts who would be willing and able to customise for cash. (I’m looking for someone to do this for my project – anyone?). Longer term, what’s needed is something akin to the IEAK for Firefox. Even if the functionality is limited to icons and preferences or whatever is technically simple, it would at least provide business users with an option. It needs to be easy for a business to choose to distribute and recommend Firefox, whilst still meeting their objectives of branding and customisation. At the moment, it’s not.