On Computers

Word Processor Software and Document Portability #1

Jack Imsdahl, jack@oncomputers.info

07 March 2004

If we all used the same software and operating systems, file compatibility and portability would not be an issue. There was a time when one could confidently send a file in Microsoftís Word format(s) .doc, and know that the recipient would be able to open and view it. Microsoft WAS word processors, in those days. While Microsoft Word is still far and away the most widely used word processor, there are now other players whose formats have to be taken into account. Star Office, Open Office, Word Perfect and others have the ability to read MS Word documents and to save in that format. However, what does one do if they have no idea what software the recipient of a document has installed? If Iím using Star Office and saving it itís native format while my recipient has Microsoft Word installed, but not Star Office or Open Office, they cannot read the document I send electronically, leaving me the option of printing it out and mailing it or finding a format in which they can read it.

There are options available which ensure documents sent electronically can be read (and most often printed, too). MS and several other firms have readers available for free which enable a recipient to access the information contained in those documents. In addition, there are special formats which can be used, such as Adobeís .pdf (Portable Document Format) to ensure that information is accessible to any recipient. Weíre going to discuss this and office software in general today and revisit the topic in weeks to come. As always; weíll concentrate on free or exceptionally cost-effective solutions.

There are three formats for text documents that almost everyone can access now, from virtually any machine; be it a PC, a Mac or a *nix system. These are plain text (.txt) Rich Text Format (.rtf) and the afore-mentioned Portable Document Format (.pdf). Each has itís drawbacks and strengths and each has itís place in your arsenal of tools.

The first is plain text, which usually bears the file extension .txt. Plain text is just that; plain. It contains only the most minimal formatting and itís appearance suffers as a result. It will convey information just fine, though, and is often the preferred method in mediums such as email. Plain text formatting will not encompass seamless inclusions such as graphics in the manner a word processor does, which is itís primary limitation. Plain text will not also easily accommodate such things as mathematical formulae, with subscripts and superscripts. These have to be displayed in a less elegant manner than they normally are. Plain text also has the advantage of being the most compact format, meaning that itís file sizes are minimal.

I am unaware of any default operating system installation which does not include an application to read, write and edit plain text. In Windows, itís Notepad, and this application is automatically associated with files bearing the .txt extension unless you install another application and tell Windows to do otherwise. While Notepad has itís limitations, it is a fully functional text editor. It does not handle files larger than 32 kilobytes (which is really a large text file unless you are programming or writing a comprehensive report) and it does not display some text files generated on *nix machines with the line breaks where they were originally put. Should you want or need it; most word processors offer you the option of saving in plain text, too.

Macs and *nix machines contain a variety of text editors, depending on the OS version. So youíre covered, there.

On my own Windows systems; I use either an older text editor called Notespad or the newer and more capable Edit Pad Lite. Both are available free, display all plain text files well (whether generated on Windows or *nix machines) have no file size limitations and allow a number of files to be open in the application at once, with the user switching between them using a tabbed interface. Iíll post urls below. There are lots of others, so feel free to try a bunch of them until you find one you really like.

Rich text format is plain text marked up in the same manner HTML is. The markup tags tell the application how to display the document. (In fact; all word and document processors work like this; controlling display and printing with tags the user does not ordinarily see or interact with and .rtf files are nearly identical to HTML ones.) Windows installations have Wordpad installed, which is a fairly functional word processor utilizing the Rich Text Format (.rtf) as itís native file type. Almost all installations of an operating system have an application capable of reading and writing to .rtf files.

I use Rich Text Format a lot, precisely because I know everyone can read and write to it. For this reason, I prefer it over any other word processor format when sending to a recipient whose software and/or machine type is unknown to me. Nearly any word processor application can open .rtf files and almost all can save in that format, as well. I have found that some literary magazines, web sites and book editors demand .rtf files, though not many. Rich Text Format is also the easiest way for us to hand off typeset text files from our varying machines to another. It allows the Linux machines to hand formatted text to the Windows machines, and vice versa. We choose this method because some of our machines do not have enough free disk space to allow installation of a ďrealĒ word processor or suite of office applications. One alternative to our scheme would be to install Open Office, Star Office or Word Perfect across the LAN. All of those talk between the various platforms perfectly. A more esoteric alternative would be to run Microsoft Office across the LAN, with the Linux boxes using CodeWeaverís Crossover Office emulator.

In addition, for much of what I do, there is no need for a fully-equipped word processor. This may be true for you, too. I often do ďquick and dirtyĒ jobs where I generate a small amount of text which needs only limited formatting (for whatever reason) and then printing. Wordpad used to be my favored application for this because it opened quickly and had all the features I needed. However, Wordpad is not the most robust application around. It occasionally locks or crashes, which always seems to result in lost data. Itís rather obvious that Microsoft stopped development on Wordpad a long time ago and merely includes it in an OS installation because they have it and it will serve until someone installs a ďrealĒ word processor.

For a while, I fastened on early versions of AbiWord as a solution. It has the capability to open and save files in .rtf. The 1.x versions for Widows werenít any more robust and stable than Wordpad, though, and were not a viable solution for that reason. However, the AbiWord team has kept at itís development and they are now at version 2.0.3, which Iíve been using for just over a week now (on Windows and Debian GNU/Linux) with no problems at all. It hasnít crashed or hung once! Printing from AbiWord is also trouble-free on all of our machines. (I used the Windows binary for that installation and built the Linux version from source code.)

In my compact Linux installations, where disk space is at a premium, my Rich Text Format word processor of choice is Ted. Itís a very small application which the user must build from source code. However, it is stable, prints well and, while lacking a large feature list, does everything I ask of it. The full installation of Ted takes up only one megabyte on disk, which is attractive to me on some machines.

The last document format we are going to talk about it Adobeís Portable Document Format, which uses the .pdf file extension. Readers for documents transmitted in .pdf format are available for nearly every conceivable platform at no charge. In addition, many applications (such as Open Office) write to them natively. All the readers I am aware of allow printing of these documents.

This is because, at some time in the past, Adobe wanted .pdf files to be universally accepted. In order to have .pdf become a standard, they had to open it up so that they were not the only purveyors of software capable of generating and reading these files. Because of this, there are many applications that do this. Some are freeware and many are low-priced; all made possible by liberal licensing terms from Adobe for the basic protocol.

Adobeís own application for generating these files is Acrobat and it is fairly expensive. (List price for Acrobat 6.0 is $449 USD.) Of course, theyíre not just selling the ability to create .pdfs. Rather, itís an entire suite of collaboration applications and (I suspect) worth it if you need those features. However, I must say Iíve found it somewhat problematic and sluggish in my many associations with it.

Pdfs are rather large files, compared to the text they contain. The markup, version, revision and other information contained in them swells the size to a noticeable degree, sometimes doubling it. This becomes less of an issue as time goes by and more and more people get broadband access, but at one time it was a real drawback. (To me on my dialup connection, it still is.)

Pdfs can be locked; meaning the recipient cannot modify the files. The various consultant reports I generate for pay are always sent in .pdf format for just this reason.
This keeps intentional or inadvertent tampering out of the picture and is an important feature for me because of this. The document thus always says exactly what I created it to say.

The two applications I use regularly to create .pdf files are listed below. PDF 995 has proven a robust Windows app and worked with no serious problems for me and several others for a couple years now.

Open Office is a rapidly maturing office suite, containing not only a word processor, but presentation software, a spreadsheet application and more. They are at version 1.1 and still developing at a rapid pace. Open Office is based on and a derivative of Sun Microsystemís Star Office. Itís word processor, called ďWriterĒ, is robust and now more often than not my choice for handling very large documents (hundreds of pages) as it seems more stable at this than any other app for Windows. While not as full-featured as Microsoft Office or the WordPerfect Office suite, it is a good choice, and available free of charge. (They do ask you to register it so they get some idea of how many are using it.) I find it offers functionality on the level of MS Office 97, or so, with increased stability on many machines. Writer can convert any document it has open to a .pdf with a single mouse click.


Edit Pad Lite;
Please note that there are versions of Edit Pad which the publishers charge for and which contain more capabilities than the freeware version. You might want to give these a good, close look to see if they suit you.

AbiWord is open source and free.

PDF 995;
The basic PDF 995 package creates .pdf files and is free, though it displays an ad screen at each use. The publishers also sell more capable versions which can edit .pdfs and much more. The prices are reasonable and, in my experience, the software is reliable. I might add that on the one occasion at which I sought support from this outfit, they responded promptly and effectively.

Open Office;
A fairly complete and functional office suite in which the word processor writes natively to itís own format, but can write to others, such as the Microsoft Word .doc format. It also can write to a .pdf with a simple mouse click.

© 2004 Jack Imsdahl

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