Paul Ford on File Formats

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Paul Ford writes for The Manual about some of his favorite file formats, and along the way discusses the difference between WordPerfect, a good word processor that ultimately failed with users, and Microsoft Word, which is Microsoft Word.

WordPerfect was always the best word processor. Because it allowed for insight into its very structure. You could hit a certain key combination and suddenly the screen would split and you’d reveal the codes, the bolds and italics and so forth, that would define your text when it was printed. It was beloved of legal secretaries and journalists alike. Because when you work with words, at the practical, everyday level, the ability to look under the hood is essential. Words are not simple. And WordPerfect acknowledged that. Microsoft Word did not. Microsoft kept insisting that what you saw on your screen was the way things were, and if your fonts just kept sort of randomly changing, well, you must have wanted it that way.

Then along came HTML, and what I remember most was that sense of being back inside the file. Sure, HTML was a typographic nightmare, a bunch of unjustified Times New Roman in 12 pt on screens with chiclet-sized pixels, but under the hood you could see all the pieces. Just like WordPerfect.

Reading WordPerfect’s formatting codes is exactly how I got into and learned HTML, almost exactly 20 years ago. Word has an underlying structure too, of course, but it’s a mess. Like with a lot of production software systems, Word’s architects made the thing work, got promoted or whatever, and then moved on. WordPerfect, like semantic HTML, prioritized good structure.

This post was gently revised on May 22, 2021. Also, is, sadly, no longer online; links in this post have been updated to point to Internet Archive snapshots.—DD