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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?

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.