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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

RTF: the “other” interchange format

Category: technology
MacDevCenter’s Giles Turnbull has an article up on using RTF (Rich Text Format) as an interchange format. For non-technical users, this is probably the best way to move documents around without having to worry about whether someone can read them. Nearly all word processors that aspire to be “full-featured” provide some support for RTF these days, so it’s a good starting place.

This morning at work, I was asked to provide some information from a quick-start guide for a hand-off to a customer (who wants to write some custom stuff). We’re using FrameMaker for documentation, not Word, and Word users just seem to assume everyone else uses Word. Imagine that. (For those who wonder why I don’t use Word, this profanity-laden rant pretty well sums it up.) FrameMaker’s RTF exporter is less than wonderful, producing sloppy text formatting and losing the graphics, but the customer just wanted the tables so it’s all good.

Way back when, I brought RTF home once and used a text editor on an Amiga to make updates to a manual. We had a deadline and a snowstorm, so I wanted to make sure I could hold up my end of things even if I couldn’t get to the office. It worked, except for one minor detail: those spaces at the end of lines of RTF are significant, and my text editor insisted on removing them... so when I got back to work & opened it in the word processor, there were spacesmissing here and there. Running the spell checker fixed all but one or two of them.

So with all these wonderful real-world examples, what’s lacking in RTF compared to ODF, the virtues of which I’ve been extolling lately?

First, RTF has been one of those formats that is supposed to be well-known, but Microsoft has always had a penchant for omitting things. The newer specifications are better.

Second, there are RTF parsers and conversion tools out there, but they are far less well-known than equivalent XML tools.

Third, even Microsoft is moving to XML for document interchange.

RTF, given its Word-driven ubiquity, will be around for a long time to come and will continue to be a useful interchange format for people interested primarily in exchanging and using documents. Many people will continue to use older versions of Word and Office for a long time to come, and XML interchange won’t be feasible for them. But for those of us who want our computers to extract (and perhaps transform) the important pieces of the documents we get, XML is really the way forward.

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