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TextEdit's Default Format: RTF... Why?
Pages: 1, 2, 3

TextEdit and RTF

There's lots of fancy features that Word users are familiar with that are just not part of the RTF spec, and so they don't appear in TextEdit or any other RTF editor.

Some might even argue that RTF no longer has a place in modern word processing. HTML could be considered a better choice for cross-platform formatted documents, especially those that need to include some of the elements RTF does not support.

But TextEdit does allow simple tables, breaks, hyperlinks, and lists.

TextEdit extreeeeeme!

Most of these can be found lurking under the Format menu. One minor annoyance of TextEdit is that, despite being a Cocoa application, its toolbar is not customizable. Inserting tables and the like means quite a lot of mousing, something that could be speeded up if only it were possible to drag a button or two on to the toolbar.

Image support is there, too. Well, sort of. If you want to put a Microsoft-format image in an .rtf on Windows, you should be able to do so with a Bitmap (.bmp). With Mac OS X, you can add images of almost any sort, but the instant you do so your .rtf file changes into an .rtfd, which is a slightly different beast.

"RTFD" stands for "Rich Text Format Directory," and is one of those documents that's actually a directory or folder. Right- or Control-click on any .rtfd file and click "Show package contents." A Finder window will open up showing how this particular .rtfd file has been assembled. There will always be a txt.rtf file alongside a series of image files that have been dropped into the text. The .rtfd file is actually a folder with several files inside it; but in the Finder, it looks and behaves just like a standard .rtf.

Conclusion: RTF Stands for Simplicity

At this point, the interoperability for which RTF is so well known starts to falter. RTFD is relatively new, and some (only slightly) older machines and systems just don't recognize it.

Specifications and implementations have changed over the years. Throughout, the intentions have surely been to maintain a balance between features and portability, but it's a fine balance and one that is easily disrupted.

The simple upshot is this: the more complicated your RTF document, the greater the likelihood that it won't look the same when someone opens it on another computer running a different OS. It might be something as basic has different character sets, or two machines with different specs, one of which is out of date and doesn't know about this newfangled "tables" stuff. Whatever the problem, it's worth remembering that complexity and interoperability don't mix well.

Which brings me back to the earlier list of reasons to use RTF.

RTF is well suited to certain kinds of documents: basic ones. Letters, academic theses, school research, screenplays, novels--everything that's just page after page of words--are ideal in RTF.

More complicated stuff is either beyond RTF's functionality, or within it, but risks problems of cross-platform portability.

Rather than think of it as an alternative to Word's .doc, think of it as a tool for simple documents, and Word (or, or Pages, or whatever word processor you like to use) as a tool for complex documents.

"Use the right tool for the job" is an old cliché but it's a valuable one to remember here. Sometimes, using your (W|w)ord processor for something as simple as a letter to mom is overkill. Use a simpler tool instead.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at

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