2 min read

Why geeks love text and so could you

Converting documents from one format to another can be hard.

Sometimes the problem is incompatibilities between different generations of the same application. Microsoft Word 2007’s docx file format isn’t automatically readable in older version of Word.

The same is true for files generated by Excel 2007 and PowerPoint 2007.

When you know in advance a colleague uses an earlier application version, you can choose to do the polite thing and save your document in the older format. This backward compatibility is built-in to Word 2007. Most applications offer similar backward compatibility.

Backward compatibility – up to a point

This is fine in theory, but you’ll either have to remember which format each colleague can use or you’ll just have to send everything in the older format. The problem with this approach is important things in the newer document format may go missing during translation to the older format.

If someone sends you a unopenable docx file – and you’re running an older, yet still reasonably up-to-date version of Word, you’ll only be able to work with the file if you’ve downloaded the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack. This will also work with your Excel and PowerPoint files.

Things can be harder when converting files between applications from rival software companies or between applications running on different operating systems.

Not all software companies go out of their way to may conversion simple. Dealing with ancient documents from long-deceased operating systems is almost impossible. For example, I’ve got MS-Dos Wordperfect and Planperfect files that I can no longer read.

Text, the lowest common denominator

Some geeks by-pass conversion problems by sticking with lowest-common-denominator file formats. Just about every application on any kind of operating system or hardware device that deals with text, from supercomputers to mobile phones and mp3 players can cope with data stored as plain text (.txt) files.

Plain text is enjoying something of a revival  thanks to the popularity of texting and similar lo-fi applications.

Text makes sense if you don’t need to keep style formatting information such as fonts, character sizes and bold or italic characters in your documents. An alternative low-end file format allowing some basic style formatting is .rtf, the rich text format. This was originally developed by Microsoft some 20 years ago to allow documents to move between different operating systems and it is still present as an option in just about every application that uses text today.

While I can no longer read my ancient Wordperfect files, I have recently found prehistoric documents from the early 1980s when I ran the CP/M operating system and a program called WordStar. Because they were stored as text files, they are still readable.