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In praise of dropbox, the devolution of text files, and the growing insignificance of Microsoft Word

This is, in some ways, a follow-up to the earlier post on text files. A surprising revolution (or maybe devolution) is going on, where writers are dialing back to more primitive file formats and word processors. In many ways this marks the end of Microsoft Word as the dominant text editor (this is said with some caveats, made below).

There are several reasons for this transition to simpler text files, formats, and word processors. For one, we are not into producing flyers and printed material as much. Part of the power of Word was that you could make a calendar, advertisement, collection of photos, a thesis, a book, whatever. From footnotes to tables and a table of contents, Word could do a heck of a lot. It is also very customizable, which is great, and it kept Macs relevant by having very good inter-operability between the Mac and Windows versions.

There were problems with Word, however. Many people used it to type a letter, and this was sort of overkill. It could crash unexpectedly, and files could become corrupted. It became quite complex in all its buttons and options. Also, you had to remember to save constantly, as the auto-save was buggy (at least on the Mac side), and it could crash from time to time.

The internet, email, Facebook, and webpages have all made flyers and such rather redundant. Your average person doesn’t need to do page layout very often. Heck, you don’t even need a flyer or the garage sale itself, now that we have Craigslist. So Word is less necessary for its page layout capabilities.

The newer technology and ubiquity of the internet has also demanded greater flexibility with files. Word, like many programs, was a bit of a lock-in; you had to use it. But what if you want to edit text on your iPad or iPhone? There are apps for that, but why go to that trouble with a simple batch of text, such as this very web post? Why not simply keep it in a neutral format that many editors can read and modify? Text files are simple, small, and fast, less prone to corruption. They can be quickly searched and indexed, unlike Word files. They were going backwards–no footnotes or bold styles–but they were also a leap forward. With more data and more options, .txt was a great option.

With dropbox, suddenly there was even greater ubiquity of your data. As long as you had internet, you could get to your files from multiple computers, devices, app phones, and slate computers, and cloud computing was the rage for this very reason. Now there was an even greater demand for flexibility of applications and neutrality of file format. Thus the revival of the text format (.txt) was born. On the Mac, this was spurred by Notational Velocity and Simplenote, which enabled you to have quick, easy, searchable plain text files of whatever. It could be snippets of data, webpages, travel plans, wish lists, drafts of writing or blogs. It was dead fast and dead simple.

So I can be anywhere and jot down a note about an idea for a paper or element to a book into my iPhone with Simplenote. I can then go to my computer and bring up the note (no syncing required!) and add to it, import it into another application, or delete it. I can enter a gift idea for a family member immediately. Genius!

Some academics are experimenting with new text layout languages, such as Multimarkdown and LaTeX. Both are editor-agnostic, you write in whatever application you wish, but write in their particular formatting. The advantage is, the text can then be used in a variety of settings–webpages, Word files, whatever. No re-formatting or special coding required.

All this said, Word still remains king for publishing purposes, and .doc is the preferred format of publishers and journals. You still need a copy of Word sitting around for the final stages, and this is precisely what many are doing–wait until the final edits are done before invoking Word. Word can read .txt and other neutral formats, so it is easy to do your work in your favorite editor (Scrivener, sigh!) and then move to Word for the final stages. Scrivener auto-saves and NEVER CRASHES.1 Same with Notational Velocity.

The other wrinkle for academics is that plain text files don’t support footnoting. This isn’t too much of a problem if you are using a reference manager, such as Bookends, since it can generate the formatted reference for you anyway. But it will require inserting footnotes in some manner, if footnotes are the citation style.

So, until publishers move away from Word, we get away from footnotes and endnotes for citations, or we move to Multimarkdown or some other coding-type language, Word is still king. But now he has a strong-willed revolutionary Parliament at his heels …

  1. I still repeatedly hit the command–”s” keys out of habit, which invokes the save and archive command in Scrivener.  ↩

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