Attachments in Proprietary Formats Considered Harmful
There are a few reasons why you should think twice
before sending email attachments in proprietary formats, such as the
MS-Word document format.
Before we go into this, note that first off, virtually
nothing in life, is absolute. Sometimes, it is ok to go against a
normal guideline in the exigencies of time or money or effort.
Second, there is very
little reason to send textual content as an attachment. In
other words, if you have typed in a document that has text, just
include it verbatim -- don't "attach" it.
(Alternatively, point to an online
resource. See below on more on online resources.)
- It is very easy to spread computer viruses
with todays overly
complex document formats. You may think that your computer
is free of viruses, but consider that by sending documents in, say,
the MS-Word format to others, you implicitly invite them to do the
same. Do you know whether their computer is virus-free?
- You may inadvertently transmit some of your own
secrets. Many users of MS-Word don't realise that these
documents contain all kinds of information that is not
displayed when you view it in Word. This includes text of earlier
revisions, which you may believe that you deleted, but which is still
saved and transmitted as part of a document. This text may be
recovered by recipients of a document and may prove to be rather
- Many proprietary document formats are bloated.
Have you ever had a look at how much memory your average MS-Word
document consumes? Not too bad given todays hard disk sizes you may
think, but consider what happens if you send an email with such a
document as an attachment to a list of recipients or even a mailing
list. The email, including the attachment, is copied multiple times
and if many of the recipients are hosted on the same mail server, the
message can put a significant strain on the system.
- Users of alternative software cannot read your
attachments. Proprietary document formats are kept
secret by the companies developing them, in an attempt to
reduce competition, and thus, choice for the end user. As a
consequence, users of alternative software will not be able
to read your attachments. In particular, a growing number
of computer users rely on alternative operating systems
which put a strong emphasis on international standards and
often reject formats that stifle competition and
interoperability; these systems are particularly popular
among computer-savvy expert users who you often find at
universities, and especially, computing schools.
- You force others into an upgrade cycle.
You may use a newer version of some proprietary software than
some of the recipients of your message. Some software vendors
change the document formats with every version in an attempt
to force any person that you communicate with to purchase the
updated version, too (read about "planned obsolescence"). Do
you really want to support this practice?
What is the Alternative?
There are open standards that provide an excellent alternative
to proprietary document formats.
- Plain ASCII text: Unless you need special
formatting, good old plain ASCII text is your friend. It can't carry
viruses, is space efficient and everybody can read it. ASCII is not
only good for plain text, any decent spreadsheet can read and write
tables in tab-delimited ASCII format.
- Online resources: There are several, free
online sites that enable people to edit "attachments" in a
collaborative manner. Point a link to that site! One may argue
that the use of such online resources requires power-guzzling data
centers. True, no doubt. This is an argument for using vanilla
ASCII text. Further, are you sure that your servers are not being
backed up, and guzzling energy locally? How about pooling all
the energy and relying on a data center?
- PostScript and PDF: If you need high quality
formatted documents, you may have to resort to either PostScript or
PDF. Both formats are well enough standardised to have broad support
on most computing platforms. Unfortunately, they do carry a (very
much reduced) risk for viruses and can lead to rather large documents,
too. A definite plus of these formats over the Word format is that
they much more reliably lead to consistent high quality printouts on
systems that are configured different to yours. They can also be used
to display slides, such as those created by Powerpoint, and also
Unfortunately, the portability of PDF documents is sometimes
insufficient and documents cannot be displayed by all PDF previewers
(even Adobe's own software fails on some documents).
In cases, where it is necessary for two parties to edit the same
document (as opposed to exchange documents for the sole purpose of
viewing and printing the documents), the RTF format seems to be the
only half-way portable option for WYSIWIG word processors. However,
as programs like Word tend to use their own extension to this format,
compatibility is often limited.
This page uses large parts from Manuel Chakravarty's
Web space. It echoes my thoughts so well in places that I have not bothered
modifying it too much.