What About a Single File Format?

May 10th, 2013

You know the score. You receive a file from someone, and nothing you have on your Mac or PC can open that document. Nothing. It might as well be empty space as far as you’re concerned, and therein lies the dilemma. How do you weigh a company’s interests in having a proprietary format that requires the use of their app against the right of having the freedom to read any document directed to your attention without buying new software?

Now as far as the U.S. government is concerned, there’s now an executive order from President Obama that is intended to make data “open and machine-readable.” Without going into the fine details, it basically means that material that’s intended for public release should be read by anyone who is able to access the information.

In the real world, that probably means Adobe PDF, which has become the universal standard for electronic documents. Regardless of which app you used to create the data, there’s a decent chance there’s a PDF import and export option somewhere. On the Mac it’s part of the OS, although you can also use an app’s proprietary PDF encoding scheme for specific uses, such as setting up a printer or Web file in Adobe InDesign.

However, the source formats are all so different. It’s not just the formatting choices that might be specific to the functions of an app, but the native format. All so different, and, while some apps allow you to read documents from other apps with greater or lesser accuracy (often lesser), quite often it requires a separate utility to accomplish the task.

Yes, there are areas where there’s some standardization, such as the “.doc” format for Microsoft Word. Newer versions of the app support a more universal “.docx” format instead, based on Open XML, intended to be an open format that would make the documents easier to read. The format was, in part, developed by Microsoft. That, however, doesn’t mean that all apps that handle text and spreadsheets will be able to read those documents with complete fidelity, or even partial fidelity.

It gets far worse when you have to deal with documents made in graphics software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign and even QuarkXPress. Say I have a document prepared with Adobe’s desktop publishing app. As a QuarkXPress user, I have to pay up to $200 to MarkzTools for an add-on (XTension) that allows me to read those files. It hardly makes sense for a single document, unless it’s part of a project that will more than cover the investment.

Sure, I understand that these proprietary formats are not just intended to lock you in to a specific app, though that’s one part of the equation. The other is that it might contain metadata and special formatting that the app publisher feels are most efficiently stored in a certain way. But it hardly works in the best interests of the end user, and it’s not the same as patenting one’s invention.

With open file formats, you should be able to read a file in a similar app, but not necessarily the one that created it. Sure, it’s possible some formatting will be lost because the source app contains special features that aren’t included in the target app. But maybe it would be possible to keep the custom formatting, but make that element of the document untouchable. You could still change the text, or the shape of a picture, but, unless you choose otherwise (in other words, drop the custom formats), that component of the document remains look but do not touch.

From a practical point of view, I don’t see this happening. So long as a developer is depending on proprietary features to earn their keep, it’s not likely that there will be much of a movement to further open the document standards. Besides, there are limited ways in which you can annotate or edit a PDF file, most particularly in an Adobe app. So maybe there’s not much incentive to change the way things are.

But that doesn’t mean customers aren’t being regularly inconvenienced. While I understand that an app developer would like to lock you in to their product in any way possible, you’d think that performance, interface, usability, and features customers want, would be sufficient to keep their user base. Having a proprietary file format that isn’t easily translated, or at best translated with imperfect accuracy, works against the customer. But that doesn’t stop software publishers from doing it anyway.

Is there any solution? I’m not at all certain there is. It’s not that customers are demanding the publishers of the apps they depend on work together to find a solution. It’s also true that handling different formats seems easier on the Mac. But it can be just an impossible situation on a smartphone or a tablet.

So perhaps I’m just talking to myself. But that’s nothing unusual.

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7 Responses to “What About a Single File Format?”

  1. Ted Schroeder says:

    Going forward, it’s likely that there will be challenges and difficulties with storing and retrieving old documents. At some point, say in 2030, most computers will not be able to run the software that we’re currently using. And how much backward compatibility will the software developers provide? Obviously, for many organizations and people, this is not a problem. A ten year old Word file can’t be opened? Toss it.

    But it’s certainly possible that some info stored in databases will need to be continually updated and transferred or re-formatted to current programs.

    And it’s certainly possible that some new kind of formatting for something we all take for granted, like email, will come along and make the old format obsolete.

    The whole “open and machine-readable” issue is probably one that affects the government more than anyone else.

  2. Articles you should read (May 10) …. says:

    […] “What About a Single File Format?: You know the score. You receive a file from someone, and nothing you have on your Mac or PC can open that document. Nothing. It might as well be empty space as far as you’re concerned, and therein lies the dilemma. How do you weigh a company’s interests in having a proprietary format that requires the use of their app against the right of having the freedom to read any document directed to your attention without buying new software?” — “The Tech Night Owl” (www.technightowl.com) […]

  3. dfs says:

    Let me point out that there is one kind of document which adheres to a single file format and is readable on any computer already in existence: the html file. And a big step towards s. f. f. has been already taken with the introduction of Unicode, which makes the legibility of non-Roman alphabets, special symbols of many kinds, and also such typographical features as curly quotes and em-dashes universally legible and does much to foster the exchange of files between platforms.

  4. dfs says:

    Actually, Gene, in one sense there may be a universal format, or at least a viable basis for one. Whenever you use a word processing program, you are presumably creating Postscript markup code which, if only you were allowed to see edit it in its raw form, would look more or less like html code. And, presumably, this same markup language is used for other things than text files (you can print out your spreadsheet, after all). And since a word processing program is in essence a wysiwyg app for working in this language (just as Dreamweaver is such an app. for working with html code), the amount of proprietary stuff that any given program does must be very limited. And, back in the pre-OSX days, there used to be a wonderful program, kinda like a user’s Swiss Army gimmick, that allowed you to open one program’s files in a variety of other programs. Back then, this helped out with the backwards compatibility issue that Ted Schroeder very sensibly mentions. Maybe something like this could help out again? Anyway, I have a hunch that any kind of file that can be printed on a Postscript printer is capable of being made universal.

    • @dfs, The other issue here is whether the companies that have these proprietary formats, and Adobe is one of the worst offenders, would agree to such a thing and open their formats to become part of this new document scheme. That may be the biggest impediment.


  5. Andrew says:

    I remember Nisus Writer using RTF as their document format in the old classic Mac OS days, and they still do in their OSX versions.

    As a lawyer I run into file format import/export problems frequently. State courts use MS Word, while federal courts and many individual attorneys use WordPerfect. I use Word, but have to maintain a WordPerfect installation (in Parallels) because Word will simply break a WordPerfect legal pleading, and vice versa. I’ve tried alternative applications like Nisus, Mellel and 3rd party converters, but always with broken formatting.

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