Federal government officials say they have devised a workaround solution to a compatibility problem that reportedly has kept users of computers running Apple’s Macintosh operating system (OS) from employing a government web site that serves as the central hub for those seeking federal grants, including U.S. Department of Education-issued monies.

According to reports by the Washington Post, the Associated Press (AP), and other news outlets, the electronic forms for would-be applicants on the Grants.gov web site aren’t Mac-compatible, causing enormous frustration for those using Macintosh computers.

In response to these reports, government officials say there are ways around the problem. They also say they are working on a permanent solution they hope will be in place this fall.

But school officials and other Mac users who frequently apply for federal grants say the problem is indicative of a larger divide between federal government agencies, which largely use computers running Microsoft’s Windows OS, and the needs of schools–many of which continue to rely on Macintosh machines.

The idea behind the recently formed Grants.gov site is to streamline the process of applying for federal grants by phasing out the need for paper-based applications and replacing them with electronic ones. It also serves as a resource point for the 26 federal grant-making agencies that award more than $400 billion in grants each year. “Frustration kind of goes through the roof,” Mark Tumeo, vice provost for research and dean of the college of graduate studies at Cleveland State University, told AP when reached about the compatibility problem.

Tumeo said about 30 percent of the systems used by his university’s scientists and others are Macintosh computers. He estimated several hundred grant applications submitted by his university were affected by the glitch, which was first reported by the Post. The technology used on the site was provided by a little-known developer of electronic submissions software called PureEdge Solutions Inc., owned by IBM.

Though the web site, which is maintained by officials in the Department of Health and Human Services, currently does not feature a native application for Macintosh users, John Etcheverry, deputy program manager for Grants.gov, said his agency is working with IBM to develop a platform-independent viewer that officials hope to make available for downloading free of charge by schools and other applicants by November.

In the interim, he said, there are a number of workaround solutions available to non-Windows applicants looking to use the automated system. Though a native application for Mac users still is in the works, he said, “I don’t think that anybody is entirely precluded or prohibited from submitting a grant” simply because they are using a Macintosh-based machine.

One solution, he said, is for schools and other applicants using Macintosh computers to invest in some form of PC-emulation software. The Grants.gov web site features information about a solution called Virtual PC from Microsoft. The cost: $129.

Realizing Mac users might object to paying for software to access a solution PC users can obtain for free, Grants.gov also has partnered with the National Institutes of Health to develop a workaround using a Citrix Server Client.

According to information on the Grants.gov web site, “a Citrix server connection allows non-Windows users to remotely launch a Windows session on their own machines by using the free Citrix client application.”

While connected to the server, non-Windows users can develop their grant applications using the automated forms. All non-Windows users will need to download and install the free Citrix client application to work on the grant for which they are applying, according to information on the site.

As a third alternative, Etcheverry said, some schools and universities are developing their own electronic applications for use with the system. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has developed an application for filling out and submitting federal grant forms online, which it licenses to other institutions–again, for an additional cost.

Some familiar with the federal grant-seeking process say this isn’t the first time the federal government has addressed the needs of PC users up front while treating Mac users as an afterthought.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Deborah Ward, a Pennsylvania-based professional grant writer and a columnist for eSchool News. “I see the same thing here in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s like the government folks, because they use PCs, don’t think about the Mac users.”

Ward, who prepares grant applications for a variety of clients, including schools, says she has run into instances where forms made for PC-based computers are not accessible to Macintosh users. Often Ward, who uses a Mac, says she gets around the problem simply by switching to a PC and continuing the process. But schools don’t always have that luxury, she said.

Elaine Wrenn, a Macintosh user and technology coordinator for the Echo Horizon School in Culver City, Calif., said she hasn’t tried using the federal grant site but has run into similar compatibility issues when trying to submit essential forms for the eRate, the $2.5 billion-a-year federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services and internet access to the nation’s schools.

“I have not dealt with the government grant site, but I do have problems completing all my eRate forms from a Mac,” she wrote in an eMail message to eSchool News. “I can go through the entire interview process, but when it goes to create the PDF of the final form, none of the blanks are filled out.”

To get around the problem, Wrenn says, her school keeps a single PC on hand to help her submit the forms.

“We happen to have one lone PC in our school that I must seek out just for this purpose,” she wrote. “Up until a few years ago, we didn’t have any PCs at our school, so I would have really been up a creek. Luckily, at the time, the forms were still filled out in longhand.”

Despite the confusion, Etcheverry said, the goal over the next two or three years is to move the entire federal grant application process online.

That transition is already well under way.

In 2004, during the first year of the Grants.gov program, federal agencies received a total of 1,200 applications online, he said. Last year, that number jumped to more than 16,000. This year, he said, the agency is on pace to receive as many as 45,000 online grant applications.

“It really is the way of the future when it comes to grants,” Etcheverry said. Macintosh users say it’s a future in which their needs should be considered, too.

Links:

Grants.gov
http://www.grants.gov

Mac support using Citrix Server
http://www.grants.gov/MacSupport

National Institutes of Health
http://www.nih.gov/