Safari vs. .Gov
In the past, Safari users have run into problems accessing a lot of Web sites that just weren't built to be compatible with Apple's browser. That's frustrating enough when it's a business site, but when it's a government site that provides information and services to which the user has a real right of access, it's downright unfair. However, with Mac's growth and Safari's push to Windows, has the situation improved?
04/28/08 4:00 AM PT
There's a scenario that most every Apple aficionado has run into: A Web site that, when visited via Apple's Safari Web browser, just doesn't work. If it's just a handy site, failure is irritating. When it's an important site, perhaps even a critical federally managed site, a Safari failure can incite real anger, especially when the error report indicates the site is "optimized" for Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Shouldn't government sites be open to all browsers? Aren't sites supposed to be built on basic Web standards? Hasn't there been plenty of time to iron out these standards? Sure, Safari usage is only hovering around 4 to 6 percent of all browser use range, but clearly Apple OS X and Safari is a viable Microsoft alternative worthy of support, is it not?
A private company not making its site available to all users is one thing, but access to government information can be a touchy issue. Back in 2005, the issue of Safari incompatibility erupted. Lots of sites, including banks and online stores, didn't work with Safari -- or didn't work very well. Mozilla's Firefox alleviated some of the issues, as did Internet Explorer (IE) for the Mac. However, when Microsoft pulled the plug on IE for the Mac in late December 2005, that option became less and less workable.
So when government sites seemed to only work well with Windows versions of IE, some users fought back. One of the best examples can be found at MacInTouch Reader Reports on "Mac Marginalization" in the government and education sector. The site covers dozens of examples of .gov-related Web sites that didn't function well with Safari. A biggie was Hurricane Katrina and usability flaws that shut out Mac and Linux users from filing disaster assistance claims.
Fast-forward to today. Now that the Mac is gaining in market share and Apple is hoping to make Safari more mainstream by making a version for Windows, has the problem been solved? Are Safari users able to get access to more Web sites now, government and otherwise? Whose responsibility is it, anyway -- Apple's or the developers of these various sites that at one time locked Safari out?
The Case of Grants.gov
Grants.gov, a federally funded clearing house for federal grant applications, was perhaps the biggest offender with the highest profile. While Safari users are a small percentage of users, a higher percentage of the kinds of people who apply for grants -- educators and scientists -- use Macs. They found themselves shut out of the cool new grant application -- or if not shut out, vexed by problems as they were trying to file a critical grant application while on deadline. Grant deadlines are notoriously strict. Got a computer problem and missed the deadline? Too bad. Better luck next time. Talk about stress.
While Grants.gov has cleaned up its act to some degree, the Mac-using grant-filing population still faces a risky proposition. Compatibility is better, but it's still not perfect.
Roger S. Cohen, Mac-using consultant who assists clients with grant applications, told MacNewsWorld that Grants.gov is a very complex system that was set up to simplify the grant application process. Reportedly, the whole system cost about US$5 billion to produce, and it's meant to remove all of the confusing printed paperwork that went along with grant applications. Some agencies wanted three-ring binders, others wanted staples, paper clips, or binder clips, plus six extra copies. "It was hard to comply with the requirements, so they went to this electronic submission plan instead," Cohen said.
Cohen can explain Grants.gov to a neophyte in about 10 minutes, but it took him much longer to understand it all. Grants.gov starts with a downloadable application, which various agencies can utilize for their own grant applications. They are able to include forms in the application, and the application is able to take data fields and propagate them throughout the forms. So an identifying number, for instance, can be keyed in once and moved to various other fields with the grant application. Once the data is entered into the application, it then runs a series of checks against the data and the required forms to ensure that all the forms have been filled out correctly.
For Windows, the application is PureEdge Viewer. For Macs, the application is IBM Workplace Forms Viewer. IBM bought the company that produced PureEdge, but all of this wasn't -- and isn't -- particularly easy to figure out.
After the data has been entered into the application, the application can be uploaded to Grants.gov, at which time the application launches the PC or Mac's default browser and sends the whole package to Grants.gov. From a Mac standpoint, this doesn't seem to work. The application just seems to fail.
"You're really left scratching your head," Cohen said. "I haven't seen it done successfully."
Grants.gov has created some long technology support pages that describe what's supported and how. For Mac users, the other way to submit an application is to run Windows XP on a Mac using Boot Camp, or presumably Parallels or Fusion running XP virtually. In this scenario, users basically aren't using a Mac at all. Plus, it requires an XP license.
Another option is a Citrix Server Connection, which basically appears to send the application to a remote Windows session that then relays the application.
But wait, it gets better. It turns out that Mac lovers aren't the only users who aren't supported. Microsoft's Vista operating system isn't supported, either. In fact, Vista users can't even use PureEdge Viewer, so that application isn't an option. Vista users also have to use a Citrix session, but that apparently isn't easy.
Cohen has had clients call him up at 4 a.m. to help get grants submitted via Windows XP, and as for Vista, they thought they were fine -- after all, they were using the latest, most advanced PC operating system available. When they learned that they couldn't complete an application via Vista, "they were astounded," Cohen said.
"One really wonders how this essential federal system doesn't support modern operating systems even when it's been at least six months since they've been introduced," he added.
Remains a Problem
Overall, Safari compatibility has gotten better, and governments and companies do seem to be working harder at providing support. The city of Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, lists compatibility for Mac and Windows versions of IE, Firefox, Mozilla, Netscape, Opera and Safari. If a user finds a problem, the city wants users to report Web browser incompatibility issues. Not bad, but the city does acknowledge that some of its applications like streaming video of city meetings doesn't work with all browsers.
In the private service sector, Cohen mentioned that Key Bank spent several hours with him and several IT employees just to hammer out a Safari compatibility problem. "And they could have just told me, 'Forget it, we only support IE'," he said.
As for FEMA, the organization now says it supports Safari.
Overall browser compatibility is still a problem -- and it's not limited to Safari, Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, told MacNewsWorld. "I've noticed in my own use that I'm still hitting sites ... where features aren't showing up as they should with Firefox or that a site is optimized for Internet Explorer," he said. "It brings up this whole issue of a level playing field on the Internet and exactly how you can ensure that users have a common experience."
Mac and Linux users are definitely still a minority, he noted, "But that doesn't mean users should be shunted off on the frontage road while the rest get to use the freeway."
One company, CrossBrowserTesting.com, helps Web developers test their sites against a variety of browsers to ensure that they are compatible. Surprisingly, the No. 1 issue they see has nothing to do with Safari and users who think they're being shut out of the Internet world.
"The No. 1 compatibility concern we are seeing is providing support for and making sure sites still work with IE6. Almost 64 percent of the test instances run on CrossBrowserTesting.com in the last 30 days have been run on a configuration which supports Internet Explorer 6," Ken Hamric, a founder of CrossBrowserTesting.com, told MacNewsWorld.
"Most Windows-based developers have moved to IE7 or the IE8 beta on their development machines -- they no longer have easy access to a machine from which they can test IE6," he added, noting that IE6, despite being an older browser, has nearly a third of the browser market share -- still -- and is "notorious for its poor support for CSS (cascading style sheets)."
While Safari's market share is still small, it's definitely growing in importance. "The No. 1 request we are currently receiving at CrossBrowserTesting.com is, 'When are you going to have Macs to test against?'" Hamric said.
"Based on this, we believe testing against Safari on the Macintosh platform is the second greatest cross-browser testing need in the market and getting this platform out is our company's No. 1 initiative. We will be providing Mac instances by the middle of May," he added.
It's a Tough Job
Hamric noted that differences in browsers can be difficult for developers -- it's a tough job even for developers who are trying to be cross-browser friendly. In fact, Hamric says CrossBrowserTesting.com has also run into its own embarrassing problems.
For example, on the home page, "In Safari on the Mac (and also Firefox 2 on the Mac), the Google search box drops down over the blue menu bar at the top of our site. On the PC platform, this same search box renders fine across multiple browsers, including Safari and Firefox," he said, noting that they also had a Java-related problem crop up that broke service to their Mac customers. "We promptly corrected the problem, but it was still pretty embarrassing."