Rich Text Format (RTF) as a File Transmission Standard

Without going into a long diatribe about the evils of the document encoding schemes built into most hold-your-hand email programs (Eudora, Pegasus Mail, Cc:Mail, etc.), suffice to say that the egregiously egotistical nature of their organization makes it difficult (if not impossible) to encode, transmit, and decode documents reliably without a room full of computer platforms and text processsing programs, when the transmission takes place from one location or organization to another.

Sending files via Internet email or surfact post (on diskette) is a rapidly expanding way of transmitting documents. The wide variety of computer platforms, text processing applications and email encoding schemes for attaching word processing documents to email messages has created two problems:

  1. Documents being transmitted via diskette between platforms and applications - for example, a Word Perfect document created on a PC that has to be read on a Mac running MS Word. The problem here is clear: documents created by one application cannot easily be opened by a different application unless the creator specified the secondary application when saving the document. Frequently, the creator has little or no idea what the opening application will be when the document reaches the recipient. This problem is exacerbated when the document is being moved across platforms as well as applications.

  2. Documents of any sort being sent via the Internet and opened on same or different machines and applications. This opens a nest of vipers for the recipient. In addition to the differences between applications and platforms, there is also the wide variety of encoding schemes built into email programs to contend with. Frequently the file creator and sender has little idea of how the recipient's environment is configured, or what applications and platforms are available at the remote end. In addition, senders are also infrequently knowledgeable about their own machines and applications and have little idea what happens to their files at either end of the transmission.

What happens more often than not, is that the file arrives at the receivers end in a format that makes it either unusable or difficult to unpack.

The solution to this problem is a standard file transmission language that is widely acceptable to word processing applications and usable on an equally wide variety of computer platforms. Such a language exists and is widely distributed with most modern text processing applications. It is called Rich Text Format, or RTF for short.

Rich Text Format - RTF

RTF (Rich Text Format) is a "document interchange language" designed by Microsoft as an open format for exchanging documents between Microsoft Word other word processing packages, across platforms (between different kinds of computers). RTF is an ASCII encoding of a word processing document that supports and maintains complex formatting, tables, graphics, OLE embedding, master document/subdocument relationships, etc.

Despite the proprietary nature of its creation, RTF has become a defacto standard for exchanging documents between platforms and applications.

RTF is supported by WordPerfect, FrameMaker, AmiPro, Pagemaker, Interleaf and many other packages on UNIX, Apple, Macintosh, Next, and PC platforms.

Rich Text Format versions of documents can be opened directly by word-processors or other RTF-aware applications and the text will appear (more or less) as it was when it was encoded. Page breaks, italics, tables, footnotes, etc., will appear in much the same way as they did in the original document.

Because of the wide acceptance of RTF, and the subsequent availablity of RTF-aware applications and platforms, it is the choice of encoding schemes when files have to be transferred via email or smail (sending a diskette via post).

Creating RTF Documents

Part of the beauty of RTF is that the tools for encoding documents in the language are built into the majority of modern word processing and text manipulation tools for Macs and PCs.

To convert a document from the Word or WordPerfect version to RTF, go to the "Save As" feature (usually found under the File menu) and select RTF (sometimes referred to as "Interchange Format").

When the encoding is complete, you will have something that looks like this:

{\rtf1\mac\deff2 {\fonttbl {\f0\fswiss Chicago;} {\f13\fnil Zapf
Dingbats;} {\f14\fnil Bookman;} {\f16\fnil Palatino;} {\f20\froman
Times;} {\f21\fswiss Helvetica;} {\f22\fmodern Courier;} {\f23\ftech
Symbol;} {\f2\froman New York;} {\f34\fnil New Century Schlbk;}
{\f3\fswiss Geneva;} {\f4\fmodern Monaco;}
{\f3 \sbasedon222\snext0 Normal;}} {\info {\title Saving & Printing RTF
(generic)} {\author Bruce Jones}}\margl1440\margr1440\enddoc\pgnstart0
\sectd \sbknone\linemod0\linex0\cols1\endnhere \pard\plain \qc\sl360
\f3 {\b\fs22 MS Word / Interchange Format (RTF) Files / Electronic
Mail} {\fs22\ul \par }\pard \sl360 {\fs22 \par }\pard \sl360 {\fs22 To
"decode" an Interchange Format (RTF) document received in the mail, you
first must save a copy of the mail message to a file on your local
micro-computer.\par }\pard \sl360 {\fs22 \par }\pard \sl360 {\fs22

This should be saved in a file (with a different name from the original), which can then be mailed (via an ascii or plain text attachment where necessary) over the Internet or sent on a diskette. The recipient of the file or disk can then open the document with whatever word processor and platform they have available.

Saving & Printing RTF Documents

MS Word / Interchange Format (RTF) Files / Electronic Mail

To "decode" an Interchange Format (RTF) document received in the mail, you first must save a copy of the mail message to a file on your local micro-computer.

Given that there are many electronic mail programs running on many kinds of computers throughout the world, this document does not include instructions on how to download a file, received in the mail, to a micro-computer. It assumes that the user either already knows how to do so, or has local help available. If neither of these is the case, take a look at BJ's Unix Primer for a selection of documents that might be of help.

Open the transferred file with Word or WordPerfect on the Mac

NOTE: This document assumes the use of a Macintosh computer. While there are some important differences between Macs and PCs running Windows, the resourceful PC user should be able to translate these instructions into PC-speak.

If you double-click the file icon for your transferred file on the Mac, you will get the message: "The application that created this document cannot be found." Instead, drag the icon for the file until it is over the MS Word (or WordPerfect) icon. When the application icon changes color (darkens), release the mouse button and the document will be opened with the wordprocessor. If this doesn't work, open your wordprocessor as though you were about to create a new document and then, with the File menu or the Command-O (Cloverleaf key and the "oh" key) combination, open your transferred document. If you are using Word, it will ask you if you wish to open the file as "Text" or "Text with Formatting". Choose "Text" - the other option will create headaches.

The file will open with the Mail header at the top, and the RTF-encoded text below. You need to remove the header lines and any blank lines at the top of the file, and then "Save-As" (File menu) the file as "Text Only" - you can use the same filename, and tell it to overwrite the file.

Close the file immediately. Then re-open the saved file. If you have followed these instructions (with possible exceptions based on the wordprocessor of choice), the application will convert the RTF to a normal MS Word/WordPerfect file with italics, paragraphs, font (if available), and pagination in place. While the file may not be exactly as created on the remote platform, it will be close and require little in the way of editing to return it to a compliant version.

(c)Copyright 1997 by Bruce Jones
Anyone is free to reproduce any of these documents in their entirety or parts thereof providing:
  1. Sections used are reproduced entirely and without alteration
  2. The following page footer is reproduced on each page:
    BJ's UNIX Primer - (c) Bruce Jones - 1985, 1996
  3. Full credit is noted somewhere in the reproduction
Bruce Jones 			Department of Communication			University of California, San Diego
(619) 534-0417/4410		9500 Gilman Drive
FAX (619) 534-7315		La Jolla, Ca. 92093-0503

Comments to:

Return to:
Bruce Jones Homepage
BJ's Unix Primer Index
The CommWeb Homepage

This page last updated on: Feb 3 1997