23 July 2009

Another casualty of my Linux loyalty.

I was reading about the Unix Philosophy on Wikipedia, and one of its stipulations toward good program design is to store data in flat text files. Sounds simple enough, but it's surprising (or rather, it's not surprising given how programmers actually are) how complex that sort of thing can actually get. 

People like to think Microsoft Works is an oxymoron. I disagree as I think it's one of the most competent word processors I've used since Appleworks on my old iMac. It's certainly better than feature-bloated Microsoft Word with its triple-figure price tag and myriad of features I honestly want someone to justify the need for to me. Seriously, what perilous problem was laid to rest by the onset of the latest version of MSWord? What award-winning novelist and finally got past his writer's block and completed his life's work? What disease was cured? 

Anyway, I'd written some stuff in Microsoft Works and, without giving it that much thought, simply saved the files as "Works Documents" which didn't seem like a proprietary format at the time, much less a proprietary format that would end up giving me such a headache later. They were put on a flash drive and then basically left in a drawer for a few months. During those few months, I decided I'd had it with Windows and Macintosh and went the Linux route. I'd traded in Microsoft Works and Appleworks for OpenOffice, which so far seemed able to do anything the others could do... or so I thought. 

Going in, there was no reason to assume converting the files would be such a problem, I'd written documents in Microsoft Word that I'd open in Appleworks without so much as a hitch. Earlier I'd written papers in MacWrite II before bringing them to Wordperfect which would then be brought to Appleworks. Sure, there might be a small issue with the formatting of the text (a paragraph suddenly not indented, double-spacing becoming single-spacing, and the like), but the point was every single word was there just like before. 

This time, however, when I tried to open the Works documents under Open Office's Writer, the words were not there. Nothing was there. It could not open the file. Let's think about that: a word processor could not even begin to try and open a document, which was just words on pages, written by another word processor. At first I thought this was just some sort of Microsoft/Linux barrier, a kind of "migration deterrent" from Big MS to keep Little L out of its clubhouse, so I took the file to my roommate's computer. She didn't have MSWord or even Microsoft Works, but she did have Notepad and Wordpad. Strangely, the exact same thing happened; the MSWorks file could not be interpreted in any way, shape, or form by anything other than MSWorks (and possibly MSWord). Like I've said before, there wasn't anything even all that special about these documents, they were simply text, no pictures, no boxes, no graphs, no columns, no page numbers, no headers or footers, no nothing. All I could think was, "What's so special about these files that they need their own special format?!" 

I then thought to myself, as I often do in these situations, "I can't possibly be the only one who's run into this problem. There has to be something I'm missing besides the possibility that I would have to either go back to Windows or at least present my roommate with the gift of MSWorks (which she might not have actually minded because she hated Notepad and Wordpad). There has to be a way to convert files like this." I did some searching and while I was relieved I found a solution (and a free one, I might add), I was still incredibly annoyed at how utterly convoluted the solution really was. 

I found a website that gave me the option to upload a file and select the format I wanted to change it to. It was originally intended for reformatting picture files (.png, .bmp, .tif, that sort of thing) into JPEGs, but it could also handle a wide variety of text files. Here's the annoyance: after uploading my file, rather than simply download it again from the site (or at least displaying it in the browser window so I could just copy and paste or save as an HTML document), I had to give an e-mail address for them to send the converted file to. If that sounds petty, hang on because I haven't actually gotten to the annoying part yet. When I checked my e-mail and found the message from the conversion service, I was baffled and (here it is) annoyed that instead of the converted file being presented to me as an attachment in the message, a link in the body of the message took me to back to the original site and THEN began the download, at which I said, "Why e-mail me a link to the same place I could have just downloaded it from after uploading in the first place?" and went on to wonder what disease THIS system cured with its over-engineering. I was so flustered by the experience that when I stumbled across a forum discussion asking what man's greatest accomplishment was, I proclaimed with full conviction: PAPER! 

Take that, proprietary file formats! 

But the important thing is, I got the file opened in Open Office's Writer and I'm now finishing what I started. I'll post the link when it's done. It's a little work of fiction.