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GNU is Not Unix

RMS: Putting an End to Word Attachments 1022

sombragris writes "I've spotted in NewsForge a very interesting editorial by none other than RMS himself on the subject of getting rid of those annoying MS Word attachment that people send. The essay is worth thinking and doubtless worth implementing." I've found that KWord and Abiword both did a fine job of reading Word files - it's the being able to Save As Word where things get messy.
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RMS: Putting an End to Word Attachments

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  • Education (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RedOregon ( 161027 ) <redoregon.satx@rr@com> on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:10PM (#2823873) Homepage Journal
    Hopefully we can show enough people that the complexity of Word is very rarely used. Maybe mass installations of the windows version of vim will help :)

    I think what is required is mass education... every time some nitnoid sends you an Email with a Word document attached, and nothing in the Word document but text, respond! Don't just shake your head, think "what an idiot", and read it... respond to the Email!
  • by issachar ( 170323 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:17PM (#2823937) Homepage
    There's a very simple way of changing MS-Word's default format to something other than .doc format. I use Word a fair bit, and my copy is set to automatically save everything in rich text format. I have yet to encounter ANY formatting that can't be saved in that format. (Maybe because I don't write Macro viruses).

    Explain to people that if they do this, their documents can be read by MANY more people, and that it doesn't affect them at all because MS-Word can read .rtf documents seamlessly. (It just treats them like regular .doc files). Don't forget to explain that occaisionally the system will complain that "some formatting might be lost", but that's not really true. It's only the very strange formatting that no one ever uses that would be lost. This has been good enough for all the non-technical people I've explained this to.

  • by edgarde ( 22267 ) <> on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:21PM (#2823970) Homepage Journal
    The moderator of a Yahoo club to which I belong sent (as a standard new member greeting) some poetry as an MS-Word attachment. He was quite surprised when I replied with the name of the company he was working at when he typed it ( File | Properties | Summary ), and explained how to save as text.

    He quickly changed the greeting to a .TXT

    Later, on my advice, he made it an .RTF so he could font & format. This created sufficient confusion among other recipients that he had to change it back.

  • by Snowfox ( 34467 ) <(ten.xofwons) (ta) (xofwons)> on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:21PM (#2823973) Homepage
    I like responding to Word documents by picking another esoteric file format. Even EPS is as good as opaque to most users.

    When they reply with a "huh?" then I share some of my views on proprietary and non-standard text formats and suggest RTF when sharing docs with others. With simpler users, I'll just simplify, explaining that "RTF is the form you use when emailing documents, DOC is mostly meant for local editing before you 'publish' by printing or saving in a public format."

    Until they experience the annoyance of unavailable or cyrptic data first hand, most folks will write you off as a quack for complaining. They just can't imagine a world where e-mail attachments don't open nicely so long as you know how to double-click.

  • by SlaveTroll ( 535702 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:36PM (#2824118) Homepage Journal
    I would like to call for an end of HTML email...

    HTML mail sucks.

    It bloats messages up by a factor of ten or more and adds no content in most cases. As an example, an actual HTML mail message I received follows. A few points of interest:

    The text/plain version of the message is a perfectly readable seven line message. Even the HTML mailers include this as part of a multipart/alternative message (the other alternative being text/html).

    After 24 lines of HTML/XML preamble, we finally get to a 40-line style sheet.

    The style sheet uses a number of non-standard attributes that are unique to Microsoft Office, and thus completely worthless on other platforms.

    Do the world a favor and turn off HTML or Rich-Text in your mailer. The only people getting rich off it are Microsoft and whoever sells you bandwidth

  • by sterno ( 16320 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:39PM (#2824142) Homepage
    In the commentary RMS says:
    Most computer users use Microsoft Word. That is unfortunate for them, because Word is proprietary software, denying its users the freedom to study, change, copy, and redistribute it.
    Most users of Microsoft Word don't actually care about having the freedom to study or change it. Most don't even care about the right to copy or redistribute it except in making some limited copies for friends or to install on other computers. For most people Word works well and the issue of it being proprietary never effects them in any way they are likely to be aware of.

    Until free software advocates can make it clear to the average use what the benefits of that freedom are, it will be very difficult to wipe out things like Word attachments. We have lots of people preaching to the geek choir and people convincing businesses of the value of open source (not free software, and it's an important distinction). But nobody is really convincing the average computer user of the value of free software (aside from possibly the "free as in beer" sense).

    Simply responding to Word attachments with a political tirade isn't going to do anything except make the people who sent them to you think you're some commie wacko. The people who are likely to be receptive to such communiques are those who probably wouldn't send you the word attachment in the first place.
  • by Score Whore ( 32328 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:40PM (#2824157)
    Oh, you mean besides the fact that EVERYONE can read and write text?

    How about the fact that standard ASCII (ie. this magic, all-purpose, solves every problem, format) that Dick Stallman is talking about isn't actually capable of transmitting many european languages and very few asian languages. Not to mention the complete lack of greek, cyrillic, scientific, latin, and mathematical notation, that many people need to communicate.

    I bet Dick Stallman is going to ask everybody to speak and write in Esperanto next.

    Doesn't anybody else find it ironic that a man who decides to go off and write his own documentation system (info) when a standard already exists (man), is asking people to change away from a "closed" format? I mean shit, more apps support .doc than support .info and yet Dick's little club mainly releases their documentation as .info files. Curious ain't it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:41PM (#2824165)
    The format of my resume is HTML with CSS2 (which has everthing I want from Word, including printing directives, automatic numbering, etc.)

    Before sending, I change the extension to ".doc" and they are none the wiser. It's loaded by Word, which notices it is HTML.

    The only thing Word has that I'd want that HTML+CSS2 does not have is embedded images. I
    gotta use PDF for that.
  • by marmite ( 79819 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:48PM (#2824217) Homepage
    If you check MS RTF documentation, you will see that .doc is actually just the binary format of RTF.
  • RTF is the solution (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mr. McGibby ( 41471 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:50PM (#2824237) Homepage Journal
    Why aren't more people suggesting this (RTF format)? RTF is the best of all worlds.

    The truth is that HTML was never meant to be a document formatting language. There is no mechanism for margins or other such "printed page" stuff. It's just too difficult for normal users to transport documents around (multiple files)

    I don't understand how people can actually compare plain text to a word document. Plain text is just like HTML with all the tags removed. It just doesn't cut the mustard.

    PDF is okay, but doesn't have the ability to for straightforward editing. Yes, I know you can edit it, but it wasn't really meant for that.

    RTF is pure text, no crazy binary files, so you can edit it in emacs if you want and it is viewable by almost everyone. You could even put it into CVS! WordPad, which has been included with Windows for a while now will read it (and save to it) without even the download of the Word Viewer (which is free from MS).
  • by russianspy ( 523929 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:53PM (#2824258)
    I work in a research environment. A few months ago I was introduced to Latex. I am NOT going back. Ever. I can type out a formula just as easy as typing out a sentence. I can specify formatting external to the document itself. I can include other documents, update references automagically, use a database of references.
    I can do ALL that in either Windows, Linux, or Unix. (I think there is a Mac version as well). If you'd like a wysiwyg editor - try Lyx.

    Why create a NEW file format? One allready exists.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2002 @01:55PM (#2824273)
    I don't have any experience in word filters,
    so how easy would it be to write a word decoder
    that would output only output the tracking info
    written (i believe) in every word document ?

    That would let people w/o word reply to the sender
    with sthg like 'Sorry, I couldn't open your doc,
    my WP only outputs , , .'

    That might give them a perception of what's wrong
    with proprietary closed formats.
  • Re:Why? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2002 @02:06PM (#2824356)
    On the other hand, what if I asked that you resend all English e-mails in Esperanto, because that's what I prefer, and because it's clearly a superior language?
  • How hard would it be to write an MS Word virus that would change this preference when a document was opened?
  • by Heironymus Coward ( 548839 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @02:25PM (#2824509) Homepage

    let's straighten some things out right now, before it gets too confusing. there are three possible desired features for basic documents:

    • information
    • prettiness
    • printability

    all documents should have information, but not all need prettiness or printability. if the goal is to take information and present it in an easier-to-read format, with easily-identifiable headings and subheadings, then prettiness becomes important. if, in addition, printouts of the document will be used as something other than rough drafts, printability becomes an issue.

    the point I'm trying to make, of course, is that not every document needs the same amount of formatting details. margin information is only necessary for a document that's intended as a final printed product. stuff that's used in a company as an internal reference only doesn't need margin information, just info like bold and italics, and maybe some diagrams. HTML is great for that. if someone wants to print out an HTML doc, they can set their own margins.

    but a lot of documents -- email, memos -- do not even need prettiness. they should be done in plain text.

  • by MoNsTeR ( 4403 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @02:35PM (#2824586)
    The only people that send me Word attachments are co-workers. More specifically, supervisors. If I were to send them even a polite mail (as opposed to RMS' suggested "secret, proprietary format" diatribe) I would just a get reply saying, "You don't have Word? Call the Help Desk so your machine can be re-imaged," or "You can't read it because you're running Linux? Clyde will be right over to confiscate your computer."

    It's against college policy to possess a Linux computer (I'm not kidding), and to a lesser zeal of enforcement, against policy to have a computer with MS Office installed. I imagine there are hundreds of other large institutions out there with similar policies.

    Unless I can convince the President of the college to talk to the VP of IT about appointing a committee to consider instituting a policy restricting the use of Word attachments, they're not going away, no matter how many nice e-mails I send out.

    (It's also interesting that the worst case of cross-platform non-interoperability I've encountered is a Windows user who received an .hqx attachment from a Mac user. Trying to explain the concept of file formats to this man was, as they say, like teaching a pig to sing.)
  • Re:Same with my car (Score:3, Interesting)

    by igrek ( 127205 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @02:48PM (#2824687)
    1. As I said, they shouldn't. But even id they do - you don't need hex editor to apply them, right? The installer will do that for you (think car mechanic)

    2. It's exactly my point. We're not discussing SQL server or some other server software here, but just word processors. For server software, the original RMS analogy with cars is valid.

    3. It is important, because car internals degrade with time and people need to be able to open the hood to see the actual condition for themselves. Not the case with Word Processors (or any other shrink-wrapped applications).

    About the coffee maker... If your cat chews the power cord or deletes one of the program DLLs, you can easily restore the original condition of the program by reinstalling. With software like word processor, you can easily return to the original condition if needed. Try this with cars.

    How many people are thinking: "Wish I had the MS Word source code, I would do this and that..."? Not many. That's the point.
  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @03:00PM (#2824754) Journal

    I swear, RMS could tell people not to stick their fingers in a light socket, and they would actually have a desire to do so when he was done.

    Now, I dislike Word just as much as the next guy, but for different reasons. First, there is the macrovirus issue. I don't like closed formats either, but that's a technical issue that a lot of people don't understand. Refer to Word as a "secret format" and people will think you are smoking crack. For Joe Blow, Word is not a secret format, "it's Word format. What's the secret?".

    Instead, if I get this stuff, I say:

    I don't use Word. Could you please send plain text or HTML.

    That's it. No diatribe. No technical jargon. If this becomes the socially acceptable way to transmit documents, people will learn it because they are inconvenienced having to send the message twice, not because they want to join the Glorius People's Revolution, which most us would actually like to avoid. I wouldn't subject myself to PDF or any print-oriented format unless they said it was the only alternative. That's for a little ideological reason of my own: These formats are a PITA to read on the screen, and printing them out is bad for the environment. I have nothing personal against Adobe. If Reader were more screen friendly I wouldn't hesitate to suggest PDF.

  • by xonker ( 29382 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @03:07PM (#2824798) Homepage Journal
    Formatting, tables and graphics are not exclusive to Word. Hell, PDF is better if you need to send highly formatted material.

    Password protection? Maybe, if you're sending sensitive data, but I'm certain that's not what RMS is talking about.

    Spelling/grammar checking. Many email clients do spell-checking, though I don't know about grammar checking. Still doesn't preclude using Word to write a document and exporting to plain-text.

    Collaboration features are, again, beyond the scope of what RMS is talking about. That's if you're assuming that two people are writing a document together. Obviously, that's not the situation that RMS is talking about.

    You're just looking for excuses now.

    Again: There is NO GOOD REASON to send one-way Word attachments while there are many reasons not to. If you're collaborating together in Word, fine, but then two people have agreed on a format. RMS is asking that people not inflict the format on others who do not choose to use Word.
  • XML and CSS!!! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Geeyzus ( 99967 ) <mark_madej@POLLO ... om minus painter> on Friday January 11, 2002 @03:30PM (#2824990)
    It's a shame, as XHTML and CSS allows for very clean separation of content from presentation...

    Not to be picky, but XHTML and CSS do not separate content from presentation exactly. All XHTML is, is well-formed HTML. Which basically means, if you open a paragraph tag (<P>) you have to close it (</P>), and you can't have overlapping tags.

    This allows browsers to more easily interpret the HTML because the structure is not ambiguous as it is in a lot of HTML code...

    It also allows for better scripting with things like DHTML and so forth, because the structure is solid.

    However HTML still uses tags that are all about the presentation: <P> (paragraph) <H1> (header 1) etc.

    Now what you may have been thinking of would be using XML and CSS. This would clearly separate the content (XML) from the presentation (CSS). And oh how the web would benefit from having all of its content in XML, with standard DTDs, formatted using CSS or XSL. Warms my heart to think about it! =) The added search capabilities would be astounding... anyway...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2002 @03:33PM (#2825033)
    I said this in 1994!
    M$Word is good because it enables people to convey more than text - scientific notation, simplifying standard layouts between people and embedding useful information. It lets people do things quicker than having to type them out.
    I have to agree with Mr. Stallman though. It's not good on more levels.

    I won't even go into GUID land here...

    Until Microsoft open it up and stop obfuscating to remain in control all they create is something which is useful now but redundant with the next version they throw out.

    Unfortunately the corporate world is still pretty entrenched in Microsoft products until they see the benefits of a free operating system that does the job and makes them money.
    It needs to be advertised to the right people when it's proven to be solid and have features which are used most of the time and not just code candy.
    Which would you buy ? Something cheaper with less features or something that costs more with more features that you seldom use and that everyone else uses ?

    So Microsoft can create new versions and change the format thereby forcing an upgrade at their whim.
    How easy is .NET going to make this with it's services based model *sigh*. Auto-update everyone with a new Word format and everyone on the other side of the fence is left stranded.

    Side note:
    I wish the "underworld" would release a M$Word->HTML Perl script... and a .LIT one while we're at it
    but I guess that violates the DMCA you Americans are so proud of :->
  • Re:Gui for TeX (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fperez ( 99430 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @03:38PM (#2825062)
    Just curious, why do you consider a file 'too big for Lyx' at some point? I've written things over 100 pages long with 50+ complex figures and hundreds of equations with zero problems. Of course, I break up the whole thing in chapters and only build the master file once in a while, but I've never seen lyx buckle under the weight of a large file.

    I'm honestly curious.
  • by Coops222 ( 175248 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @03:42PM (#2825101)
    At the risk of bludgeoning the obvious to a pulpy mess...

    This wouldn't be an issue if people used the simplest possible format, most suited to the message. Ideas need well-constructed sentences and paragraphs, separated wisely by whitespace. Fonts and colors frequently serve to disguise poor writing and badly organized thoughts.

    At work anything that smells like a document arrives as a Word doc, and anything vaguely tabular becomes an Excel spreadsheet. Why wait for a huge, and expensive, application to load, only to reveal that the information is irrelevant?

    If you absolutely need a more advanced presentation then step up to HTML. Just make sure you are improving communication, not decoration.

    So there. :)
  • by cworley ( 96911 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @04:03PM (#2825282)
    At the end of the article, Stallman's #3 reply says:

    "Microsoft can (and did recently in Kenya and Brazil) have local police enforce laws that prohibit students from studying the code, prohibit entrepreneurs starting new companies, and prohibit professionals offering their services."

    I've not seen this in the news.

    Can anybody provide a link to specifics concerning what MS did in Kenya and Brazil to stop acedemic study of their .doc format?

  • by cloudmaster ( 10662 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @04:07PM (#2825306) Homepage Journal
    tables: use tabs (specifying 4-spaces/tab optional)
    graphics: attach the graphics then, don't embed them in a proprietary format

    spelling/grammar checking: most email clients will spell check, and your grammar should be up-to-par *before* you start composing email

    formatting/highlighting: see the asterics around "before" in the last phrase? See the spacebar, tab, and return keys on the keyboard? Those'll take car of most emails' formatting needs.

    correction/collaboration: yeah, I suppose, but that's not what email's really for, and documents can quickly get out-of-sync using word's features. Use plain-text and a CVS repository - it'll work better.

    password-protection: Don't send private messages to people who can't keep them private. In less than 10 minutes I can find a word password cracker on-line, so you're not protecting the document from being "sniffed".

    If people send me a message in word format without giving me a reason, I delete it and assume that a virus sent it - because no sane person would compose email in word and send it as an attachment. If my employer did that, I'd find a new employer.
  • by Karellen ( 104380 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @04:46PM (#2825568) Homepage

    Use PDF. Or HTML.

    Password protection?

    Don't use Word. Ever. That's almost as bad as using pkzip encryption. Word encryption is worse than useless as it gives you a false sense of security.

    Spelling/grammer checking?

    Um - what word processors don't have spell checkers? Grammer? Well, I suppose it's nice, but if you can't string a sentence together that scans properly, go back to school and get an education. And that's only a reason to use Word as an editor. That's not a reason to send the final version as a Word attachment. Sure, write in word. But why not still send as plain text. Most of the stuff I get as word attachments is just that - plain text. Just wrapped up in a huge word document.

    Correction/collaboration? OK - you might have me there. I've no idea of how Word's version works or if any other package has it or not, as I've never had a need for it. *shrug*
  • by redhog ( 15207 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @05:10PM (#2825745) Homepage
    Or just submit .rtf documents renamed to .doc, and they won't see any difference :]
  • by mwa ( 26272 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @05:24PM (#2825829)
    Use it as an opportunity to explain the business hazards of .doc virii and sell them services to set all their office PC's to use RTF as a default format. Then sell them an email gateway that detects inbound .docs and reformats them into .rtf files for the protection of their assets.

    Even if you don't actually sell them the service, you've given them valuable advice and underscored the fact that this type of knowledge is why they pay you.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2002 @05:30PM (#2825872)
    Why waste a lot of time sending polite replies to fools that send doc files and expect you to read hem? Its only a few line fix to sendmail to exclude such files.

    While I don't get enough doc files to bother filtering on, I did get quite a bit of HTML spam. In fact, all the HTML was spam, which prompted me to filter it out from my as such:

    HContent-Type: $>CheckContentType
    R$+ $: $(ParseCT $1 $: $)
    R $@ OK
    R$* $#error $: 553 HTML mail not accepted here -- Please resend as plain text

    I'm sure a similar fix could be done for doc files.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2002 @05:34PM (#2825904)
    oops, I left this part out (the parsect defn):

    KParseCT regex -a multipart/alternative|html|multipart/related
  • by BluBrick ( 1924 ) < minus cat> on Friday January 11, 2002 @05:57PM (#2826076) Homepage
    Formatting, tables and graphics are not exclusive to Word. Hell, PDF is better if you need to send highly formatted material.


    If you're collaborating together in Word, fine, but then two people have agreed on a format. RMS is asking that people not inflict the format on others who do not choose to use Word.

    But Word does not even necessarily make things easier for collaboration.

    Example: In a meeting with the IT staff of another company, we were discussing the contents of a particular MS Word document that they had sent us. But their fonts/default Word preferences/printers/whatever were slightly different from ours. So although we both used MS Word in order to be able to reference the same material efficiently, we weren't even on the same page...Literally.

    Using PDF would probably have solved that little hassle.

  • by Kris_J ( 10111 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @07:07PM (#2826472) Homepage Journal
    I don't like using Word as the format to share documents because;
    • I like to use a font called Book Antiqua that hasn't been installed by default with Office since version 95.
    • Printer information, including print margins, paper size, tray number, all screw things up just enough to risk major visual changes (or annoying problems like the document printing from the letterhead tray) at the other end. It's quite easy for an increase in printable area (or a change in font, see above) to result in two free-floating boxes printing on top of each other on the first page, rather than one on the first page and one on the second.
    • Word attachments can contain viruses. I'm always aware of this whenever I'm forced to send one, even though I keep my anti virus software up to date on a daily basis. I'm particularly careful when I receive one, typically only opening it in "Wordpad".
    Meanwhile, my main email address runs through Spamcop which I have setup to strip any and all attachments (there's a warning in my email .sig). Quite frankly I don't need a 300+k Word attachment with embedded graphics to tell me 500bytes worth of "We have received your CV and won't ever bother getting back to you". If anyone sends an unsolicited attachment that could have been important, I ask for a plain-text copy as the body of an email message (I also kill HTML with Spamcop, which has returned the joy to reading emails).

    I typically send out my CV as an Acrobat file. About 20% of the time I'm asked for a Word version. That's fine, I've got Word 97 installed and it's what I actually used to write the CV in the first place. I downgraded from 2000 recently and I'm much happier.

  • by Kris_J ( 10111 ) on Friday January 11, 2002 @07:16PM (#2826523) Homepage Journal
    I received a "receipt" email telling me that Company X had received my CV. It was in the form of a Word document with embedded graphics (letterhead/logo). It was over 300k encoded. I informed them that at A$0.17/MB (typical traffic costs after your monthly free limit is exceeded) it would have cost the company I used to work at 5 cents to receive and that it probably cost them something like that to send. Since I know that many IT/tech jobs advertised on local job sites attract several hundred applications, often within hours, I told them that the practice of sending Word attachments probably meant that each year one person at the company didn't get their PC upgraded (Nominal $A1,000-$A3,000 cost). It got their attention, but their HTML solution was so crappy that I think they're still sending Word attachments.

    What do clueless managers have against plain text?

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!