Computers as tools for creation are unique in that they change and evolve over time as software is updated. A hammer that you buy today can reasonably be expected to perform the same in twenty years, assuming that the tool is taken care of properly. Similarly, the bench that you build with the hammer will still be good to sit on, no matter what happens to the hammer that built it. Not so with computers and software. Not only do the tools used to create change over time and perform in sometimes unexpected ways, the artifacts of our creation are often subject to artificial limitation on use. How ridiculous would it be for a bench to only be able to be sat in if you were holding the hammer you used to build it? And yet, this is the arrangement we agree to with our software more often than not.
Creating documents with Word or Pages, storing precious family photographs in iPhoto, or locking your research away in OneNote or Evernote are all examples of a short-sighted view of technology. They work well for the near term, but taking the long view of technology requires a consideration of the nature of the format your data is stored in.
The amount one should care about the format their data is stored in and their access to their data is in direct proportion to how much one cares about the data. Proprietary file formats come with a built-in expiration date; unlike a gallon of milk though, you don’t get to know when your software’s expiration date is. Sooner or later, whoever controls that format will update it, and eventually leave your important data irretrievable. Are you sure you’ll be able to open that Pages document in twenty years? You may not be able to open a Pages document from three years ago.
Some of this argument may sound familiar to the open source community. Control and longevity of personal computing systems is at the heart of much of what open source stands for. What open source enthusiasts often miss is that the method of manipulating the data matters far less in the long run than ensuring that your data remains in a format that makes the best effort to be accessible in twenty, thirty, or a hundred years from now. That means not locking your important data in proprietary formats that may go by the wayside, but it also means using the best tools for the job at hand.
Using commercial software is perfectly acceptable as long as the tools either offer export of your data to an open format, or work directly with the open format1. For writing, I prefer plain text, HTML, and PDF. Occasionally, I may revert back to LaTeX if necessary to create a complicated document intended to be printed, but the need for that is less and less as time goes on. My files are organized in a filesystem, using logical file names and a simple folder hierarchy.
No company is guaranteed to be around forever. Nor are they guaranteed to always keep your best interests at heart. However, as long as there is a way to easily export your data to an open format, it makes sense to use the best tools available. In my opinion, the best computer on the market is a MacBook Pro, and the best operating system is OS X. OS X offers the best combination of usability, aesthetics, and power of any system currently available.
Much of my opinion on this matter comes from my own experience. Much of it was influenced by the writings of Dr. Drang and his series on text files, as well as Seth Brown and David Sparks. If you’d like to read more from people that have been bitten by proprietary formats and/or poor organizational methods, here’s a weekends reading list.
- Text files and me - Part 1
- Text files and me - Part 2
- Text files and me - Part 3
- Text files and me - Part 3.5
- Text files and me IV
- Text files and me V
The new and shiny always looks wonderful when new, and shiny, but you don’t really get your value from investment until the shine wears off.
BBEdit is the best example of an outstanding commercial product that works directly with an open format: plain text. ↩