Friday, November 04, 2005

Brief Friday Mac rant

Things like this irritate the hell out of me. I realize it's rather old news, having been announced last spring, but it's become relevant again because the December 1 implementation date is rapidly approaching. No, what irritates me not that the government is now requiring electronic submission for all NIH grant applications. The Army, for instance, has required electronic submission for years, and I've submitted several grant applications. No, it's this part:
For PureEdge Viewer to function properly, your computer must meet the following system requirements:

Windows 98, ME, NT 4.0, 2000, XP
500 Mhz processor
128 MB of RAM
40 MB disk space
Web browser: Internet Explorer 5.01 or higher, Netscape Communicator 4.5 - 4.8, Netscape 6.1, 6.2, or 7
Notice anything missing?

That's right. No Macintosh client. Once again, Mac users get the shaft. So do Linux and Unix users. This might not be such a big deal if we were talking about a business environment, where Windows rules the roost and at least 95% of desktops are Wintel boxes. But it's a different story in science and academia, where the vast majority of federal grant applications originate. Where I work now, I'd guess that at least one-third to one-half of the researchers use Macs. In the basic science departments where I've worked, the number is probably even a little higher, with some Unix and Linux users thrown into the mix.

Even more annoying is this suggestion for Mac users that they use PC emulation software (Virtual PC being in essence the only game in town these days) to submit their grants. I've used Virtual PC. It's not a bad emulation. However, unless you happen to have the latest, greatest, biggest, baddest Mac, it's painfully slow. Also, there are problems with networking. For instance, with our new HIPAA-compliant network that's being implemented at our institution right now, I'm not so sure how well Virtual PC would work. I already know that it won't work to connect to the secure web server that some doctors use to access radiology images and reports remotely.

Gregory Cook, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at North Dakota State University hit the nail on the head in an open letter to his legislator and to the Department of Health and Human Services:
This system prohibits anyone who does not use the Microsoft Windows operating system from applying for federal research dollars. I am referring to the requirement of the grants.gov website to use proprietary forms software that will only run under Windows to submit a grant application. First, I think it is completely ridiculous to move to a system that does not have cross-platform access. The National Science Foundation has had electronic grant submissions in place using web-based forms and PDF-formated files for the last five years, and it has been performing at an excellent level. Second, this requires everyone who applies for a federal grant to purchase Microsoft Windows, and that is simply a ringing endorsement for the Microsoft corporation.

Amen, brother. I'd also point out that the NIH Loan Repayment Program and the U. S. Army have also used web-based systems for years now (although the Army requires submission through an institutional representative). However, based on And here's Dr. Cook's money quote:
The federal government should not endorse one computer operating environment to be used for anyone funded by federal agencies. All this does is provide a significant guaranteed market for the Microsoft corporation to install their operating system on all computers, not just PC’s. Ideally, I would like to see HHS/grants.gov develop an electronic grant submission system that does not rely on a single operating system. This should not be difficult, and many companies and agencies routinely use web-based forms and PDF documents.

Precisely. Worse, the government is going to force all its funding agencies to move over to this software:
The President's Management Agenda http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2002/mgmt.pdf and Public Law 106-107 require all Federal Agencies to use a single electronic system to post funding opportunities and accept electronic applications for Federal grant opportunities. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has chosen Grants.gov to implement the President's Management Agenda and the Department of Health and Human Services to serve as the managing partner for Grants.gov. For additional information about Grants.gov and P.L. 106-107 go to http://grants.gov/AboutUs?campaignid=topnavtracking081105.
Given that the technology for electronic grant submissions has been in existence for several years now, unifying all the government granting agencies under one system certainly makes a lot of sense. It might even save some of the trees presently being slaughtered to print up multiple copies of voluminous grant applications--if the government doesn't just print up the same number of copies itself that it used to request from researchers (although I imagine that UPS, FedEx, and various other delivery services are probably not too happy about losing the business of all those researchers sending their applications in the day before the deadline). The conspiratorial side of me would like to blame this on the malign influence of Microsoft. Sadly (for my ability to launch into another rant, anyway), that's probably not the case. More likely, it's simply a product of the inherent Windows-centricity of the IT people charged with choosing a single system for grant application submission. They probably don't know a lot about how real scientists in the real world work and figure that, as with the government and most industry and corporate settings, the overwhelming majority use Windows-based machines. Combine this tunnel vision with the natural tendency of government bureaucracies to adopt one-size-fits-all solutions for all its agencies, and this sort of fiasco is the result.

The government claims that it will have a platform-independent solution by November 2006, although other sources indicate that it may not be until spring 2007 or even later. Why so long? (I was planning on submitting at least a couple of grant applications between now and next November; so unfortunately I guess I'm going to have to deal with this mess.) Why should investigators who don't use Windows, a significant percentage of scientists, be forced to use a cobbled-together solution such as using Virtual PC, which isn't cheap? And what about Linux and Unix users? To me it seems like a monumental screw-up not to have simply developed a web-based submission system from the very start.

14 example(s) of insolence returned:


At 11/04/2005 9:03 AM, Anonymous Mark Paris said...

I feel your pain. I just had to change ISPs because the ISP I used for six years "upgraded" their software or hardware and, as usual, it made it harder for Macs to connect. Or, in my case, impossible. And their "customer service" people offered this advice: "It's working." I don't know whether the people in charge are malicious or just ignorant.

 

At 11/04/2005 9:48 AM, Blogger Greg P said...

As a Linux user, I fully understand this issue...see it every day.
I use Linux on my computer in the office, which most of the time can connect to the Windows 2000 server, but sometimes, like now, isn't working. I have a Citrix client on Linux at home, that, when it works, works better than my home XP Citrix client, but it's not working now either. Unfortunately, our network guys don't know enough about Linux to know why it's not working right now ("the" Linux guy is on vacation right now), which means that they probably don't really understand how Windows connects either.

The hospitals I work with have remote access that only works with IE, and some use versions of Java that conflict with others' versions of Java.

This having been said, where is the Linux version of iPod software? Even though BSD Linux is under the hood of Macs, it can be painfully difficult to get at it to take advantage of Linux software on your Mac.

 

At 11/04/2005 9:56 AM, Blogger Greg P said...

One other thing...
This is why everyone should support and fight for the Open Document format. This is not a proprietary format, in spite of Microsoft's attitude about it. The advantage over PDFs is that it is easily editable without any particular software and independent of OS.

 

At 11/04/2005 11:39 AM, Anonymous Mark Paris said...

I suspect the problem lies with low-level ignoramuses. The decision makers at a higher level are entirely ignorant of technology of any kind. They rely on their IT people to tell them what they are supposed to think. And their IT people know Microsoft to some extent, if they know anything at all.

 

At 11/04/2005 12:22 PM, Blogger John said...

I notice that Firefox is also missing as an option for Windows users. At this point it is probably a more important option to include than Netscape. (And many sites that specify a Netscape option will not work with Firefox - I have run into this problem on occasion.)

 

At 11/04/2005 1:07 PM, Blogger Ken Wickiser said...

As a lieutenant in '95 I complained bitterly that although the Army rightly supported organizations like the Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind by purchasing clocks from them as opposed to Office Depot, we lined up to hand Bill Gates an obscene amount of tax dollars to outfit the entire Army with W95 and the office suite. Funny, no one listened.

 

At 11/04/2005 5:13 PM, Blogger Greg P said...

I almost forgot another irritation: Where is Quicktime for Linux?

 

At 11/04/2005 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's cause Macs SUCK

 

At 11/04/2005 6:05 PM, Anonymous Hinschelwood said...

I notice one comment saying that Mac OS X is based on BSD Linux. There's no such thing. Mac OS X is based on BSD Unix, which is similar but not the same.

Still, there is possibly a solution. WINE (Wine Is No Emulator) can run a lot of Windows software under Linux. It's not very reliable, but it often works.

In principle, Wine should also run on a Mac, since Macs have some support for Linux, in some way. Hardly a universal solution.

However, if you didn't know that already, you're not in a position to install it and get it working. A platform independent solution is always better.

I use Windows at work because I work for a software developer. It's great for running applications, but if you want to actually *do* something with the computer, it's useless. No decent tools, no scripting, nothing. Just a platform for running applications. And a pretty unpleasant and inflexible one at that.

And by the way, gtkPod is a very good program for controlling an iPod. But thanks for nothing, Apple.

 

At 11/05/2005 4:33 AM, Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

"This is why everyone should support and fight for the Open Document format. This is not a proprietary format, in spite of Microsoft's attitude about it. The advantage over PDFs is that it is easily editable without any particular software and independent of OS."

PDFs have one advantage over OpenOffice documents. They can be locked, so the receiver can't alter them (without doing a lot of work), which can be a good thing in for example official documents sent out electronically (which is a field I work in).

I develop and maintain systems used by the Danish municipalities in their work - these systems have their focus on communication between the private sector/citizens and the public sector, and are often of the form that the private sector/citizens fill out an electronic form, which goes to the municipality, which then collects all the informations needed to reply (this is done from other systems), look the information through, and send the reply back as a (digitally signed) pdf.

These system are web applications which are run on our servers, and are entirely based on MS-products. There are simple and good reasons for this, but what have bugged me since I started working there was that several of our systems only support IE browsers - this is being changed now (by me), but it took quite a fight for me to get it through.

 

At 11/05/2005 4:38 AM, Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

A couple of earlier comments make references to the lack of open sourceness of Apple.
I think Apple has gone a lot of credit for being Not-Microsoft, but they have in my eyes never really been any better than MS - actually, they could be argued to be worse. They make both teh hardware and the software.

This is not a slam against Mac users, like none of my criticism against MS is a slam against Windows users. They are entirely valid options, and are often quite easier to use than *nix products, and often support more software.

 

At 11/05/2005 8:36 AM, Blogger Orac said...

"Macs suck"? Ah, I knew I'd draw at least one troll with this post.

As for Macs not being any more open-source than Windows, that's really besides my point, which was that, in an era where web-based systems are possible and used for submission of such applications, picking a system tied to only one operating system doesn't make sense for submitting grant applications because so many scientists use different operating systems. My comments had nothing to do with whether the Mac operating system is "better" than Windows or whether Apple is better behaved (although I suspect everyone here knows what my bias is in this question).

 

At 11/05/2005 11:23 AM, Blogger decrepitoldfool said...

As an IT professional with little Mac or Linux knowledge, working in an almost pure-Windows environment, I would still push for platform independence. It helps reduce support calls to use software already on the user's computer (web browser) and to stick to the broadest possible standards.

One of the projects I support uses a proprietary plugin that the user has to install. I have told them they are excluding half of all users; not only Mac and Linux but also the large minority who cannot puzzle out the somewhat complicated install. They don't listen to me.

I use Open Office on my Windows laptop, and no one with whom I exchange documents (that I save in MS Office formats) has noticed - heh.

 

At 11/07/2005 3:35 AM, Blogger M said...

Also a Mac user. I've just started a foundation science course with the Open University... and the software that comes with it (which forms an integral part of the course) is Windows only. Which part of 'science' is only Windows compatible?

 

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