Everytime someone requests me to send my resume or a small document in
.doc, I remember the long forgotten, simple yet versatile format – the text file. While we have been fighting over standardization of office documents, we have neglected it enough to make our lives difficult by hovering around resource-hogging proprietary tools and formats even for most basic tasks. The text file is like a meta format (though format is not exactly correct, I assume it is enough for our purpose), that lets you easily create your own schema and use any extension to build your own type using it. Look at the list, if you do not believe me. Here are some of the reasons, it should rule our GUI world, as it did the command line interfaces.
- It is quite light on the hard disk space, and consumes only a fraction of what a corresponding office application document would use.
- It is light on the network bandwidth too. it is one of the ideal file formats to use while sending information over a network. It is so easy to use a text file attached to an email.
- A text file carries only characters, and reduces the danger of spreading viruses.
- A text file is a basic format in all the operating systems, and hence their editors are inbuilt. No need of third party software to use the text files. Isn’t it cool that you are independent of a tool to compose, edit or read a file!
- A text file is compatible across platforms, barring the end of line character, but they can be easily resolved if you use one of the network tools, or through converters. However, they are nowhere near the problems that we face with other binary formats, where we have to stick to a tool and to the platform(s) it is available on.
- A text file can be programmatically parsed quite easily, without requiring third party libraries. The facilities are usually provided by the operating system API. Check out the power of plain text to see how it can help programs.
- On many systems, finding in text files too is very easily supported. Utilities like grep and find make it a lot easier to search through a database of text files.
Having said that, the office documents do have their own place. Desktop publishing and collaborating on huge documents can be cumbersome through the text files. We have still seen innovative usage, e.g., the vim help system. It is extremely fast and usable through its marking system. A similar system is also seen in many code editors, which let you navigate using your own marking system.
I have built my own repository of tips and tricks using plain text files. And I cannot imagine using any other format, that will create scores of dependencies and make them it less portable.
Unfortunately we use text files only for log files and READMEs today. I think they are apt for many more cases, where we assume usage of the heavy office documents or some proprietary formats. They not only free us from a lot of dependencies, but they also make efficient use of resources. Let us make use of the text files by default default and use the other formats only when necessary.