Plain text is future-proof

31 Jul 2018

If you want to read your work ten years from now, you need to save it in a format that future computers can understand. Plain text is the universal file format, understood by humans and most every computer program. Word processor file formats change with the wind but plain text is eternal: it will stay locked at version 1.0 forever.

The best format for storing knowledge persistently is plain text.

The Pragmatic Programmer 1

Unix: the plain text operating system

The Unix operating system was built around plain text. Its system configuration files are all plain text because it’s easier troubleshoot a malfunctioning process when the config file is a simple text file than if the configuration is hidden away in a database somewhere. Plain text configuration files can be stored in a revision control system, so if you make a configuration change that breaks something, a diff on the old and new config files may reveal the culprit.

Unix is famous for being designed around the philosophy of small, sharp tools, each intended to do one thing well. This philosophy is enabled by using a common underlying format – the line-oriented, plain text file.

The Pragmatic Programmer 1

The inputs and outputs of Unix programs are plain text whenever practical, per the Unix philosophy. This allows you to pipe the output of one program into the input of another.

Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.

The Unix Philosophy

Plain text email gets opened

Plain text emails are opened 25% more often than HTML emails. On my phone, HTML emails are unreadable unless I zoom in, but plain text emails are easy to read because their text is automatically resized by the email app.

Not only are HTML emails harder to read, they may not even get delivered. ISPs and email apps may tag an HTML email as spam if the email doesn’t include a plain text version as well.

Whenever possible use plain text. It’s a simple and robust data storage format. Plain text emails are more likely to be delivered and read. No matter what computer you buy twenty years from now, you can be reasonably confident it will be able to read plain text files.

  1. Hunt, Andrew, and Thomas, Dave. “The Power of Plain Text.” The Pragmatic Programmer. Addison Wesley Longman, 2000.