Simon wrote the other day about how companies writing internal web-apps that only work in IE “is inexusable and short-sighted”. Although I agree with many of his points, I think that the main issue is something he hardly touched upon — the reason that companies don’t realise that they’re being short-sighted.

Many of the biggest companies hire the best people straight out of university. Hell, as Joel noted just the other day, a lot of the best people go for internships when they’re still at school and tend to get permanent offers. The main result of this is that a lot of the big companies (with the biggest corporate intranets and so the biggest targets for a change of corporate browser) have very smart IT people who have been in the corporation’s IT dept since they left school. Unless the company happens to be a technology one, it’s quite likely that the measure of how good those IT people are will lie in how well they supply the rest of the business with what they need, rather than how aware they are of the outside tech world.

Now, I’m not saying that these people, who are IT professionals after all, are unaware of what’s going on outside the corporations where they have worked since graduation. I’m just saying that it’s not a prerequisite for success. Many won’t be able to reel off the latest developments in the open source world, or the state of standards on the web or any of that stuff. They spend their days building great solutions to complex business problems fast. They may spend their evenings reading Slashdot, but in reality they don’t need to so many won’t.

Where am I going with this? Well, basically I’m just trying to get you to imagine stepping back from the tech world (particularly the open-source developments of late) that you know so well. No, a little further. Further. Turn around, take 20 steps and then turn back. There! Now you’re at about the right distance. Tell me what you see — what does the web look like to you? What do you think the advantages of web applications are? What does the picture tell you the web-app should be built in?

These are the basic questions that the IT professional will ask when looking at developing a new internal application. The web probably looks like a central repository of information to them — the corporate internet even more so. And what’s the advantage of a web app? Well, Simon reckons the beauty is freedom from a specific platform. I would argue that to a corporate IT bod, the key advantage to a web application is not that it frees employees from a specific platform (remember, the big corps we’re talking about here probably have standard hardware, OS, etc because they’re so big anything else is insupportable), but rather that it frees the employee from a specific machine. People can play less email attachment tennis and potentially not have to drag their laptop absolutely everywhere!

When you distil the advantage of a web app down from giving platform-independency to machine-independency, does this make it clearer why so many corporate IT depts didn’t think to develop for anything but IE? It’s all about frames of references, filters to help you work out what’s changeable and what’s not. I can tell you right now that most of those IT people would never even get to the layer of abstraction needed to see the advantages of web standards development, or cross-browser portability. Those dimensions aren’t where they were looking for change. It’s perfectly human when trying to identify likely areas of change to assume that some things are stable — the difference in what you see lies in the 20 steps between the average corporate IT guy and the “state of the web” view that many students, open-source developers and other people who’s blogs I am likely to read have.

This is why a paradigm shift and various other big changes are needed before we’re ever going to see the pleasant sight of Firefox on the corporate desktop. It’s also why campaigns like SpreadFirefox are so essential. Raising the flag, getting on the radar — this is the first step before the rational arguments can be any good to anyone.