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TextEdit's Default Format: RTF... Why?
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But Why Use RTF?

1. RTF is cross platform.

We all know that if you really want to be sure of cross-platform simplicity, plain text is the way to go.

But when you need to have text with formatted content, when italic and bold text are necessary, plain text has to give way to something else.

The global standard for formatted text documents is, of course, Microsoft's Word format. Access to this program has widened considerably in recent years, mainly because applications other than Word have gained the ability to open, edit, and even save their own .doc files.

Despite that, not everyone has access to Word. Not everyone is able, or willing, to spend money obtaining it. Some people simply dislike it as a format, often because of bad experiences they've had in the past with Word unexpectedly crashing and losing work. Such is the way with computers.

RTF is a good alternative because there are a large number of editors available that support it, meaning the user can still get all the formatting features they need (well, most of them--see Limitations, below) without suffering with what they might consider Word's unnecessary feature set.

2. RTF is quick and easy.

RTF editors start up faster, save faster, and (in my experience) are more productive tools for writing than full-blown word processors.

I was recently contacted by a teacher, who presented me with his quandary:

"I teach various writing and editing courses, and often check my students work on screen before sending it back to them with comments. I use a Mac, but most of my students use Windows machines. What's the best file format we can use to ensure compatibility and usability?"

My suggestion was to use RTF. Why? Because:

  • RTF editors are freely available on both platforms (WordPad on Windows, TextEdit on Mac).
  • Unless someone on the Mac side starts introducing images (thereby turning RTF into RTFD--more on that below), not much can go wrong in terms of cross-platform readability.
  • RTF offers sufficient formatting tools for most writers...
  • And sufficient formatting tools for editors (or in this case, tutors) to make comments on the documents.
  • Yes, Word could do all of this and compatibility would probably not be an issue, but that would mean that everyone involved had to spend money on software they didn't really need for this purpose.
  • Yes, OpenOffice.org could do it, but it is a slow and cumbersome tool in comparison.

3. RTF is safer.

RTF doesn't use macros. As long as an .rtf file is opened in an editor that doesn't run macros (like WordPad or TextEdit), there's little chance of the computer being infected by any kind of virus or worm.

4. RTF has been around for a long time.

If you really need to get your completed novel from your Powerbook G4 running Mac OS X to a publisher who never managed to upgrade from WordPerfect on Windows 3.1, RTF is probably the only way to do it.

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