Tuesday Tip: Use plain text instead of proprietary formats

plaintextApplications like Apple Pages, the venerable Microsoft Word, and similar word processing applications may be full of features, but they are also locking your data up in formats that can only be read by those apps, or have to suffer some conversion to be usable. These apps usually sport features that only work with them. Their formats are proprietary, adding a burden on other developers to try and support them. And when it comes to raw data, say a mailing list or a supplier list, the formatting and features get in the way of a machine being able to effectively process these files.

A great alternative is plain text. Plain text is underlying the technologies that drive business, social media, and the web today. Everything from HTML to Javascript to Cascading Style Sheets, the web relies on plain text. Databases and servers crunching statistics don’t need something in bold or a pretty font. They just need simple, raw data. Even instructions for manufacturing, Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines, for example, use plain text data to make parts. And plain text can be used by you, in many instances.

Plain text is a superior option in many cases.

  • It is quickly created and edited.
  • It requires no extra purchases, as TextEdit natively supports it. (Press Shift-Command-T in a TextEdit document to toggle between Rich Text and Plain Text.)
  • It requires no fonts or extra resources to display correctly.
  • Plain text is inherently cross-platform. Send that .txt file to your Windows colleague. He can open, edit, and send it back with no issues.
  • It is far, far superior for machine processing needs. For example, if you need to get data out of a file, via AppleScript perhaps, a formatted file like a Word document will be very difficult to process. A plain text file? Usually a trivial matter.
  • It often can be converted into other formats quite easily. Take a CSV file (a comma-delimited format), for example. Create a plain text file with words separated by commas and save it with a .CSV extension. Now drop that file onto the Excel or Apple Numbers dock icon and you will get a valid spreadsheet out of it! You can also use Quick Look on the file and see it as a table in the Finder. Or open it in DEVONthink and it will be shown as a sheet!

So when someone says to you, “I have that phone listing to send you. What kind of file do you want?” just tell them: “Send me a text file.”

Is there a downside to plain text? Well, it’s not a downside, it’s how plain text was designed (out of necessity, in the beginning): it doesn’t support displaying images, and there are no formatting options. If you need those things, we’ll talk about that next time.

4 Responses to “Tuesday Tip: Use plain text instead of proprietary formats”

  1. Daniel says:

    In general I agree with the posting, but I wonder about how breaks are handled on different operating systems (LF, CR, CRLF). Then there’s the encoding. Are these problems solved with today’s editors/OSs?

    In any case, it’s a good idea to check an apps export options to ensure that you are not stuck on a data island.

  2. Jim Neumann says:

    Line endings and encodings are generally accounted for in modern editors.

  3. Creed says:

    One advantage of plain text not enumerated: It is the most accurate, least frustrating for accessibility by the vision impaired. While this might be seen as an extension of your machine processing needs bullet point, it is also so much more.

  4. Jim Neumann says:

    I guess that would fall under the “human-processing” needs. Thanks for sharing that tidbit, as I was not aware of that benefit!

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