Document portability

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The two most dominant formats are HTML and PDF. These formats have different strengths, but together they cover most needs.



HTML's strength is in its adaptability: almost anything can read documents in this format. Because modern HTML documents separate the presentation from the text, each reader can choose the presentation best suited to its display. The most portable HTML has as little embedded presentation markup as possible. Presentation details belong in CSS files.

Although the data on this site is not natively HTML, scripts convert all the content to HTML before it appears in the reader's web-browser. The simple markup format used to edit these pages obstructs embedded presentation information. This helps keep the content portable.


PDF's strength is in accurately portraying a document designed for a specific presentation, usually a printable document. PDF files contain all the information needed to reproduce a document exactly as intended by the author.

A word about Word format

Despite its popularity, Microsoft's Word format is not a good choice for document exchange. The designers did not consider portability across platforms, other companies' software, or even other versions of Microsoft Word. The sender of a Microsoft Word format document has no idea how the document will look to the recipient; they may not be able to read it at all.

Odds that it will work as expected are still better than other secret formats, because of Microsoft's dominance. However, it is still less portable than either HTML or PDF because free readers are available on all platforms. Microsoft offers a freely available viewer for Word files, but it only runs on Windows.

Microsoft Word documents also contain hidden information that you might not want your recipient to know. Often this information will appear visibly on the reader's screen simply because the reader software doesn't know what else to do with it. (After a high-profile incident of leaking information the UK government switched to PDF format.)

The reader of a Word format document runs the risk of macro virus infection. A virus on the author's computer can embed copies of itself inside Word documents. Such a virus can copy itself to the reader's computer if the reader merely views the document in Microsoft Word. Macro viruses can even spread if the reader is not using Microsoft Windows.

Finally, users of software other than Microsoft consider it a discourtesy to send documents in Word format. Open and freely available choices like plain text, HTML, and PDF, do not have this stigma.

Getting a word document from this site

This site avoids the use of insecure or incompatible file formats where possible. To get material from this site in Word format you can copy it in via the Windows clipboard. Here's how:

  • open Word
  • create a new document
  • select the text you want to be in Word format
  • select Copy
  • select your new document
  • select Paste


For sharing printable documents, PDF is the format of choice. It is the only format that fully delivers on the promise of accurately reproducing a document on the recipient's printer.

For sharing more flexible documents, HTML represents the best available trade-off between portability and accurate presentation. Support for HTML and CSS is constantly improving, and a standard XML document format is on the way.

Microsoft Word format has compatibility problems, can reveal company secrets, and is a known carrier of viruses. If you use Microsoft Word to write documents you should save the files to HTML or PDF format before exchanging them with others.

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