the natives are restless

Today, it’s raining. So I have put on my Techie Wizard hat, and here are a few notes on the best practices and etiquette of providing documents to others for review or editing.

What Not to Send

Unless you want the recipient to work with – edit, change, modify – the document, never send them the native format file. Native means the format it was created in, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and Adobe Photoshop. It’s like saying here, I baked you a cake, and handing them a bowl of flour, sugar, and eggs. It ain’t done yet.

Done means PDF for documents, jpg for photos. There are others for images, but usually it’s jpg. If you’re making a slideshow or presentation, done is PDF or PPS, Powerpoint Slideshow, not PPT, which is the native application of Powerpoint.


Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format created by Adobe Systems in 1993 for document exchange. PDF is used for representing two-dimensional documents in a manner independent of the application software, hardware, and operating system.[2] Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout 2D document that includes the text, fonts, images, and 2D vector graphics which compose the documents. [Wikipedia]

Adobe Reader, the software that displays PDF, is free, easy to get, and it works great. It shows your document clearly and completely. Get it here.

Anyone can make a PDF from any document they could otherwise print on paper, using a free PDF virtual print driver. My favorite right now is Bullzip. It works quickly and well. Once installed, you click Print and select Bullzip instead of your paper printer (even if you don’t have a paper printer) and printing creates a PDF file.

Sending for Modification

If you do want your recipient to work on the document, check with them to find out what software they use to do that type of work. Not everyone has the same programs for making stuff. Microsoft Word, for example, comes with Office, which is not a free product. Many people don’t have it. (You can buy Word separately, but you don’t save a lot of money doing that, and then you don’t have other programs you might need, like Excel and Powerpoint, is my point.)

People who do have Office don’t necessarily also have the programs that come free with most PCs, like Works. Sometimes it has to be activated, sometimes it has been deleted. It may be necessary for parties to work together, or get a geek like me involved.

If one person is using a Mac and the other a PC, heaven help you both, because I probably can’t.

The Problem with Microsoft

All of which brings us to a point that maybe you weren’t expecting. We should all be able to work together, at least on computers running Microsoft Windows. So Microsoft’s proprietary, closed-source, secretive, and very expensive approach to document creation software should have ended long ago. They have made too many things that don’t work together – like Word and Works – and it spells grief for us. True, there are conversion and compatibility applications you can download free, but that’s getting pretty geeky again.

If you have Office 2007 and you use Word to create a document and send it to me to modify, I can’t do it because I use Office 2003. Your file is .docx, and mine is old .doc. So I open your file with a conversion software I got from Microsoft, change it, and send you back .doc, not .docx. I can’t make .docx. You could have sent me .doc in the first place, and you can now open my .doc and save it again as .docx. But raise your hand if you weren’t in class that day at Bill Gates’ School for Nerds.

Here’s an article by someone who decries the practice of attaching Word files. He has a unique perspective because he’s not running Windows, but a free operating system called GNU. Who gnu? Must be gnu. Ha. … He makes this point:

Don’t you just hate receiving Word documents in email messages? Word attachments are annoying, but, worse than that, they impede people from switching to free software. Maybe we can stop this practice with a simple collective effort. All we have to do is ask each person who sends us a Word file to reconsider that way of doing things.

Most computer users use Microsoft Word. That is unfortunate for them, since Word is proprietary software, denying its users the freedom to study, change, copy, and redistribute it. And because Microsoft changes the Word file format with each release, its users are locked into a system that compels them to buy each upgrade whether they want a change or not. They may even find, several years from now, that the Word documents they are writing this year can no longer be read with the version of Word they use then.

He needs to check his facts a little, and back off the hyperbole, because new versions of Word will open old ones. It’s just that old versions won’t open new files, as I explained above. And the format doesn’t change with every version.

[Note: Microsoft changed to .docx in response to a global demand for XML zip-compatible open-source applications. It’s not a trick to get us to spend money.]

But he makes a point about cost. Microsoft would just love to keep us all hooked on their products, and just because they are the best products doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to break free, if only on principle and the good of our cash flow. Who doubts that they could sell Office for a lot less than this and still make a nice profit?

I recently spent a couple of weeks happily test-driving the latest from MS, Office 2010 Beta. It’s a free test version of their latest Office suite. But it was like driving a cool rental car. You don’t want to start liking it too much, because it has to go back, and you have to go back to your regular old ride. So it goes. And to be honest, I ultimately decided I prefer old Office 2003 anyway. So I ditched it, because I’m not going to pay $200 in October when the free trial ends and the final product comes out, whether I love it or not.

Breaking Free

What’s the solution? Either we keep struggling, or we go to school with snarky little half-baked wizards like me. Or we drop out, run off and join the circus of Free, open source office suite for the masses. I’ve got it, I’m using it along with MS Office 2003, and I’m learning to like it more everyday. It does everything MS Office will do, as far as you know, except e-mail, and it’s free gratis*. Plus, each time a new version comes out, you can have that free too.

Let’s think about it, shall we? Just a little, and not too often. Or you’ll wind up blogging about it, like me.


Therein endeth the lesson. How are you feeling?

* Deadwood, HBO:
Merrick: “The vaccine will be distributed gratis.”
Al: Free gratis.
Merrick: Free gratis is a redundancy.
EB: Does that mean “repeats itself?”
Al: Then leave gratis out.
Merrick: What luck for me Al, that you have such a keen editorial sense. “Free. Distributed Free. Period.”


One thought on “the natives are restless

  1. You should have suggested that Microsoft enhance the RTF document format. It has a more compatible base, as RTF documents can be opened by any word processor running on any operating system.{No Vendor Lockin}I tend to favour SSuite Office’s free office suites as they specialise in the RTF document format. Their software also don’t need to run on Java or .NET, like so many open source office suites, so it makes the software very small and efficient.

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