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For Shame! Some Federal Websites Now Requiring IE and Windows

Published September 7th, 2005

The first instance I knew of this was the new website that OMB commissioned last year as one of the Federal Government’s well meaning e-Gov initiatives. A good idea in theory, the site would consolidate all grants throughout the Federal Government into a single portal, letting citizens do one-stop shopping and use one standard form whenever they wanted to apply for a Federal grant. In practice, though, the Feds were in a hurry to complete the work and were able to be convinced by the IT contractor in charge to make a system that could only be used with Windows systems.

It was clear to me that this was a Very Bad Idea. I shared that opinion with decisionmakers in my agency, some of whom felt the same way. After all, many of my agency’s grantees are university professors, and the academic world has resisted Microsoft’s hegemony to a much greater degree than corporate America. It’s not unusual for Macintosh and Unix systems to make up 30% or more of the desktops at a typical U.S. research university. So now, this system, which eventually everyone who wants Federal funding will have to use, is dictating what kind of computer citizens should have. This, despite the fact that the system uses the cross-platform PDF format for application submissions! These people probably don’t even know that Mac OS X is the friendliest platform for PDF making and viewing of all! The culprit is the commercial PureEdge Viewer, which should never have been allowed to dictate the system requirements for a Federal system as important as this one. The PureEdge Viewer can only be used on Windows 98, ME, NT 4.0, 2000, XP. (See here for the details.)

OK, I thought… surely this will be an isolated incident.

But two new systems I learned of in the last month have convinced me otherwise. In August came news that the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress was planning to change their system for online submissions to restrict use to Windows users only, and even worse, to only those using Internet Explorer. Now I ask you, where have those guys been the last 2 years? Why would they ask a public that’s in the midst of switching from IE and Windows to safer alternatives to stick with virus-, adware-, and worm-prone systems? Shouldn’t the government be encouraging just the opposite?

And what was the Copyright Office’s explanation?

The office says its browser choice is limited by the commercial software package it will be using to manage the registration system, as well as the time needed to test other browsers.

This is a family blog, so I can’t spew forth the words that immediately come to mind. With my long background in web design and programming, I can tell you this is the argument of extremely lazy programmers. Also, of programmers saddled with use of an expensive, behemoth system like Siebel for managing their back-end office. It turns out that the version of Siebel they’re using requires Windows and IE. Of course, the question that raises for me is, “Who were the idiots that decided Siebel was OK, given its platform restrictions?” It’s just this kind of short-term thinking that IT planners should be striving to avoid. To build a system that only allows one kind of computer and one kind of browser–both by the same company, I should add–is to forever lock yourself out of alternatives should the need arise.

And with the proliferation of security problems in supporting the Windows platform lately, I would think a lot of all-Windows shops would be rethinking their reliance on a single vendor for their technology platform.

But not in the Federal Government, it appears. Just today I learned that FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency)–in the midst of its greatest crisis ever with Hurricane Katrina–somehow built a public-facing web system that can only be used by citizens using Windows and IE. Does this mean that everyone else who is struck by disaster will have to run next door to use their neighbor’s computer? Oh! But of course their neighbor is embroiled in the same disaster and is unlikely to be sympathetic to someone who chose to use a Mac system or Linux.

Sounds very much like discrimination to me… And our Federal Government should play no role in deciding what computer operating system we use at home. Or what browser we use with it. Web standards have always been designed to support a heterogeneous public, with the goal of universal access and communication as one of the web ideals. To build a public web system that restricts access is to play directly into Microsoft’s game plan, which of course has been to coopt the web as a Windows-based system.

Mac users have had to put up with private companies who’ve done this sort of thing for too long now… companies whose programmers were short-sighted (and yes, lazy) enough to use Microsoft-provided development tools, which of course are designed to build Windows-only web sites. Microsoft’s proprietary extensions to Javascript (a technology originally engineered by Netscape, you’ll recall) and their opening of the security nightmare of a Pandora’s box called Active-X provided just the sort of cool tricks that clueless programmers would tap into using Front Page and/or Visual Studio. (Remember when you were a kid, and your parents warned you not to trust strange men who offered you candy? Seems some people can’t recognize candy being offered by strange men when they grow up.)

So today, I finally sat down and wrote my Congressmen–all three of them. Both Senators, and one House rep. You can, too, by visiting the easy-to-use web sites at this page for the Senate and this page for the House. (Thanks to the editor of MacDailyNews for providing the news articles and the links to the Congress contact forms!)

Enough is enough! Mac users really need to let their Congress men and women know that they won’t be shut out of using web systems build with taxpayer money for all citizens to use. If you feel the same, I urge you to use those links and let your representatives know.

Here is the text of the email I sent earlier today:

I am moved to write because this is the second instance in two months where a federal agency has decided on its own that the public must use a Windows computer and Internet Explorer in order to take advantage of their onlline services.

Last month, the Copyright Office issued rules proposing that online applications would have to be submitted using Windows and Internet Explorer. Today, I learned that FEMA–in our greatest time of need–has a web site that makes similar demands on the public. Last year, OMB and a consortium of Federal agencies built, a website that only allows Windows users to submit grant proposals. This trend is bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that such systems discriminate against users of other browsers and operatings systems.

This is anathema to the whole idea behind the world wide web. It was designed to be totally platform-neutral, so that anyone with any kind of computer could communicate with anyone else on any other kind.

Not only that, but it’s become clear in the last couple of years that Windows systems are highly dangerous to take online, because they are so subject to viruses, worms, and the like. And of the browsers one could choose on Windows, Internet Explorer is by far the most exposed to these hacker tools.

I use a Macintosh both at home and at work, a choice I’ve made because it’s easier to use, is faster to use, and is not prone to viruses etc. Despite what you may have heard, the Mac’s immunity from viruses is not a function of its status as a minority computing platform. It is fundamentally more secure than Windows, and Microsoft’s mistakes with ActiveX and other Windows technologies are the reasons why this country is spending so much money to protect our computers today.

My request today is simply to stop federal agencies from writing web applications geared to one browser and one computer operating system. The World Wide Web Consortium has issued standards for web pages and applications which, if all browser makers adopted, would realize the cross-platform vision of the web’s founders.

It’s useful to remember that the technology that enabled the world wide web was originally designed on the operating system that is the direct ancestor of Apple’s Mac OS X. Like other Unix operating systems, Mac OS X is far superior to Windows in many respects, and Apple’s user interface is a marvel of ingenuity and innovation.

The federal government should not be taking any steps that limit competition in these areas and should, in fact, be encouraging companies that make products which can help reduce the rising cost of maintaining computer security today. That rising cost is directly attributable to the mistakes of one company–Microsoft. Yet it is the public that bears the burden.

Thank you for listening. Please help make sure Federal websites remain open to all citizens.

Leland Scott

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