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Stop Sending Word Docs!

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There is only one way out of Word madness: stop sending Word docs to people. Only Word can open these files, so by sending Word docs, you force other people to use Word. The specification for Microsoft Word documents is a closely-guarded secret, and since Microsoft chooses not to create versions for other operating systems (such as Linux), people who use those systems are left out in the cold. Keep in mind that Word doc files produced with one version of Word might not even be readable by other versions of Word -- forcing others to upgrade their versions. The Word doc format is not a true standard. Microsoft changes it from time to time, most likely to force users of older versions to buy the latest version.

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, believes the use of the Word doc format hurts us as consumers and hurts the industry in general. "The worst impact of sending Word format is on people who might switch to free systems: they hesitate because they feel they must have Word available to read the Word files they receive. The practice of using the secret Word format for interchange impedes the growth of our community and the spread of freedom." (see "We Can Put an End to Word Attachments" by Stallman.)

If you must continue to use Word, at least try not to inflict this punishment on the rest of us. Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman encourages people who dislike receiving Word doc files to follow his example: "For about a year, I've made a practice of responding to Word attachments with a polite message explaining why the practice of sending Word files is a bad thing, and asking the person to resend the material in a nonsecret format. . . If we all do this, we will have a much larger effect. People who disregard one polite request may change their practice when they receive multiple polite requests from various people. We may be able to give 'Don't send Word format' the status of netiquette, if we start systematically raising the issue with everyone who sends us Word files."

As a result, a minor revolt is spreading across the Internet, as people post web pages explaining, in an ever-so-polite manner, why they will not accept Word attachments:

"MS-Word is not a document exchange format" by Jeff Goldberg

"Don't send Microsoft Word documents to me" by Jonathan de Boyne Pollard

"Please don’t send Word Documents by email" by Tobias Brox

"Avoid e-mail attachments, especially Microsoft Word" by Neal McBurnett

"Attachments in proprietary formats considered harmful" by Manuel Chakravarty

Whether you move off Word or continue to be addicted to it, you should know how to save your documents in a file format that others can use and that can be attached to an email without worry. Standards for document files exist, and even Word supports them to some extent:

Rich Text Format (RTF): RTF files are readable and useful across systems and applications. RTF files preserve some font information (such as italics, bold, font sizes, and so on), and people can import the files into their word processors (including Word) to edit them. You can be sure that the RTF file doesn't harbor any viruses, because it doesn't contain any macros. The RTF files produced by Word can get crazy if they include complex formatting, tables, graphics, or objects embedded from other Microsoft applications, so you may want to simplify your document first. On the other hand, whatever application you use to open the RTF file might simplify things for you -- the text will appear (more or less) the same, with page breaks, italics, tables, and possibly even footnotes, but most of the other Word-related junk not recognized by your application will be ignored.

Portable Document Format (PDF): PDF files preserve the look, the feel, the fonts, the graphics, the pagination, headers, footers, footnotes. . .everything. Everything is exactly as it should look. PDF is ideal for distributing finished documents, including PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets. It's especially useful for forms that must print the same way on every printer and look the same on every computer. Even the fonts are taken care of -- you can automatically embed into the PDF file the font characters the document needs. The main drawback is that people can't easily edit the text unless they buy Adobe Acrobat. Unfortunately, PDF files are very large, and PDF files from untrusted sources might also carry viruses. But the risks of catching a virus by viewing and printing a PDF file are slim.

Plain ASCII: ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange, pronounced “ask-ee”) text files contain only the text of your document with no formatting whatsoever (no fonts, no spacing, and tables are turned into text spaced with tabs). Plain ASCII files can't harbor viruses (except perhaps as source code that can't execute by itself), which makes them safe. All text editing programs can edit ASCII text files, which date back to the Model T era of the computer industry. Any decent spreadsheet program can read an ASCII file's tab-delimited characters saved from a table and convert the mess back into a table.




Just Say No to Microsoft
by Tony Bove (No Starch Press)