In conjunction with another post a few weeks back, I decided to add a few points to clarify some of the problems I have in general with recieving web content in Word files. It’s not that I debate the usefuleness of word processing programs in general, it’s just that Word file attachments in particular are rapidly becoming more and more popular among users to transport documents, most of whom do not realize the problems they can cause.
Microsoft Word documents can’t always be read by other word processing programs.
The specification for Microsoft Word documents is a closely-guarded secret, and as such only software from Microsoft is capable of reading Word files correctly. While some other programs such as WordPerfect or OpenOffice may be able to convert the format and open the document, there is no guarantee that the document will be formatted as it was originally intended. People who use these other word processors, either by choice or by necessity, may be unable to open a Word document at all. It is unfair to assume that everyone to whom you send a Word document has Microsoft Word, or to expect them to acquire a copy in order to read your document.
Some documents from one version of Word may not be readable by other versions of the program.
Even if the person to whom you are sending a Word document does indeed have Microsoft Word, he or she still might be unable to read it. Because the Word file format is not standard and fixed, Microsoft can, and in fact often does, change it from time to time. As a result, documents saved with one version of Word often cannot be opened with previous versions of Word. Many people believe that Microsoft does this in an effort to force users of old versions to buy the latest version, even when they are otherwise content with the older version and have no reason to “upgrade”.
Microsoft Word documents are not guaranteed to look and print the same way on every computer and printer.
Contrary to what you might expect from Word’s WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface, a document produced with Word on one computer may, in fact, end up with very different formatting even when viewed with the same version of Word on another computer. The reason for this is that Microsoft Word will reformat a document based on the user’s printer settings without notifying the user. This is particularyly for certain kinds of documents, such as forms, which rely on elements being precisely positioned.
Sending documents in Word format could violate your privacy.
Microsoft Word is configured by default to automatically track and record changes you make to a document. What many people don’t realize is that this record of changes is actually silently embedded in the file every time you save your document. When you send such a document to a third party, it is incredibly easy for them to recover this log and see how the the content in your file from several revisions back. Confidiential or compromising personal or business information you thought you removed from a document before sending it may in fact still be accessible to the recipient. There have been several notable cases of confidential information being leaked via publically-posted Word documents. In one intersting case, Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was caught when police tracked hidden information in a Word document he had mailed to them on a disk.
Word files can pose a security threat
Word files can contain programming code (macros) which can be executed by your computer automatically when the document is opened. Microsoft’s motivation for including this functionality in Word was to allow these word processing macros to be saved along with the document. However, it wasn’t too long before malicious individuals began exploiting this design flaw by writing Word macro code to surreptitiously delete random files or otherwise damage a computer’s operating system. As a result, Word files are now well known as the transport vehichle for dozens of computer viruses. When you receive a Word attachment by e-mail, do you really want to take the risk of welcoming a Trojan Horse http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_virus into your system?
Word documents have notoriously large file sizes when compared to other formats.
The Word file format is bloated and inefficient and the document file size can be much bigger than necessary for the amount of text they contain. Even though hard drive space is much cheaper these days, folders full of several Word documents take up space much quicker than expected. Also, as file attachments in an email, Word documents can often take a couple of minutes to download if someone is still on a low-speed connection as compared to the mere seconds it would take to transfer the equivalent amount of information as plain text.
Again, most of these points apply not only to Microsoft Word, but also to other commercial word processors, such as WordPerfect, OpenOffice and the like. Fortunately, the problem of sending proprietary file formats is not that difficult to work around, and does not require you to stop using Microsoft Word.
Alternatives file formats
Unless your document actually requires special fonts or formatting, consider simply typing it (or copy-and-pasting it) directly into the e-mail you are sending. This way nobody needs to open up a separate program to read your document. If you prefer to send the document as a plain text attachment, Micorosft Notepad is included in the standard install of Micorost Windows. Simply paste your content into Notepad and save the file as a .txt doument. Almost every operating system has a default application that will read .txt files.
Rich Text Format (RTF)
In cases where the document makes use of special formatting and you expect the recipient to edit it, you may wish to send a Rich Text (RTF) file instead of a Word file. RTF was developed to be a standard data interchange format for word processing programs, and most popular word processors can read and write RTF files. RTF may not preserve all of the formatting exactly, but generally comes pretty close to the original document.
Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF)
If you are sending a document which has extensive formatting and is intended to be printed out, and which you do not expect the recipient to have to or want to modify, consider sending your attachment as a PDF file. This file format is fully and publically documented, and programs to read them are widely available for a variety of computing platforms. Unlike with Microsoft Word files, PDF files will always display exactly the same on the recipient’s system as on yours. One important caveat with these file formats, though, is that unless the recipient has a full version of the Acrobat Program with which to edit the file, they are “read only” and not editable by recipients with only the free Acrobat Reader program.
Converting documents to other file formats
Converting your Word documents to one of the above formats is usually pretty easy. In most cases, you can simply use the Save As command from the File menu; somewhere in the dialog window that appears will be a drop-down box allowing you to select the file format.
If you want to send a document as plain text, a quick alternative to resaving it is to simply select the document text with the mouse cursor or with Editâ†’Select All, copy it to the clipboard (Editâ†’Copy), and then paste it into an e-mail in your mail program (Editâ†’Paste).
PDF is not typically in the list of formats Microsoft Word can export to. However, some systems are configured to allow you to produce PDF files through the Print command. To see if your system supports this, activate the Print command from the File menu and look through the list of available printers for one whose name indicates it produces PDF or Acrobat files. You can always purchase a copy of Adobe Acrobat or another similar program that will integrate a PDF “toolbar” into the Word application for ease in exporting to the PDF format.