The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'm married!

Well, for those you who know me or have been reading the blog for a while, you should know that I got engaged to my long-time girlfriend (of 6 years!) last summer. I'm really happy to say that, after a year of wedding planning, we're now married, back from our honeymoon, and re-adjusting to normal life.

More than anything, I was really surprised at just how much planning is involved in a wedding. We literally started planning right after the proposal (July 3rd last year) and kept doing stuff right up until the day before the wedding (July 22nd this year). But, in the end, all of the hard work and stress was really worth it. Every vendor that we had turned out to be really great, so even though it took us, in some cases, months to decide on a particular vendor, it was worth it. This leads to my biggest piece of advice for other soon-to-be-newlyweds: Allow a year for planning, start planning right away, and make a schedule of when things need to be done (there's lots of examples online).

The entire wedding experience went off with no problems at all. There's so much that can go wrong , starting with the rehearsal all the way to getting back from the honeymoon, but everything seemed to go perfectly. And most importantly, we had a great time at our wedding. It was a lot of fun! And the honeymoon (we went to Aruba!) was great as well. It was great to get a break from wedding planning, and to just spend a week relaxing with my new wife.

It was strange to know that so many people had travelled so far (we had some out-of-country guests, even!), just to see the two of us get married. But, I think that is the point of a wedding, and I now realize that that's really what makes it so much better than eloping -- you get to share one of the most special days of your life with everyone who's close to you. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Which makes it all the more meaningful that everything went well.

At any rate, it feels great to be married. And there's still more marriage-related business to be taking care of -- it doesn't stop after you say "I do". Selecting pictures for our album, name changes, insurance changes, financial changes, it just keeps going.

But, you know what makes all the work bearable? I get to go through it with the greatest girl I've ever met -- who now happens to be my wife. :)

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

How-To: Get A Great Shave

In February of 2006, I bought a new electric razor. Ever since then, I have been obsessed with getting a perfect shave.

The new electric -- a Norelco -- was pretty good. Definitely better than other electrics I've had in my life. But, every day when I look at my face in the mirror, I knew there must be a way to get a better shave. I had redness (especially on my neck), a dry feeling, and a five o'clock shadow by noon. Sure, I've seen all these ailments on other men as well. But, I've also seen men with near-perfect shaves, like what you see on TV and in the movies (but there I'm sure it's mostly makeup).

So, since February of 2006 (over a year!) I have been trying every combination of razor, pre-shave lotion, post-shave lotion, and overall method I could find, in an effort to figure out how to get a great shave. I think I've finally settled on my conclusion. I won't bore you with every failed combination I tried, but I'll outline what I have decided as my ideal shaving method.

My basic conclusion was that shaving with a blade (such as a Gillette Fusion or Schick Quattro) is leagues better than shaving with an electric. Irritation and redness were reduced, and the shave is much closer. So, this whole process is for shaving with a blade razor.

Also note: All men's hair is different, and all men's skin is different. So, what works for me may not work for you. But, it's a starting point.

Step 1: Don't shave every day -- if at all possible. Sometimes you just have to shave every day, but frequently you don't. Especially if you get a really close shave on the days you do shave. Skipping a day or two gives your skin a chance to recover from shaving, and reduces overall irritation. It also gives the razor something a little more substantial to work with on the days that you do shave, which helps it do its job. If you really need to shave every day, try just using an electric razor on the "off" days, to touch up. The electric razor is almost like not shaving, so it gives your skin a break without being too scruffy.

Step 2: Shave right after a hot shower in the morning. Hot water softens the hairs and makes them easier to cut. It also opens pores on your skin and helps to reduce irritation.

Step 3: If you have the time, exfoliate before shaving. Use a product such as Nivea For Men Energizing Facial Scrub. This will help clean away dead skin cells and other debris, and gives the razor a smooth surface to work with. It can also help lift hairs away from the skin, and can even help if you end up with an ingrown hair or two. I don't do this every single time I shave because it takes time, but I try to do it at least once a week, if not twice.

Step 4: Get your face wet with hot water. This makes sure that your hairs are still soft and your pores are still open. If you are literally shaving right after jumping out of the shower, you may be able to just not dry your face and accomplish the same thing.

Step 5: Lather up your face with Noxzema Medicated Shave for Sensitive Skin. I've tried a ton of different shaving creams, and this was the best by far. And it costs less than most as well! It doesn't have flashy TV commercials like Edge, but it works far better. Just shake the can, dispense some onto your hand, and spread it out over your face and neck. Massage it a little so it can get in between your hairs.

Step 6: Let the shaving cream sit for a minute or so. It helps if you can find something else to do during this "intermission", like clean your ears.

Step 7: Shave once with the grain, with a Gillete Fusion Power. I tried several razors and found that this one worked the best, especially with the power turned on. "With the grain" generally means in a downward direction. Start with your sideburns, then your cheeks, then your neck, then the area around your mouth and chin. Take smooth strokes -- long strokes on big open areas like your cheeks, short strokes for small areas like your chin. Rinse off the blade after every stroke or two with warm water.

Step 8: Check for spots that are still scruffy, and re-lather. Shaving with the grain reduces irritation, but it can also not give a terribly good shave in all spots. So, feel around and see what still needs to be smoothed out, and re-lather those spots.

Step 9: Re-shave, against the grain. Just the spots that need it. The neck and chin are especially likely to need a second pass like this. With some skin and hair types, shaving against the grain can cause irritation and ingrown hairs, so be careful. If you're especially prone to this, you may not be able to do this second pass at all and may need to settle for the results after step 7.

Everyone's hair growth is different, so it may take several tries before you get steps 7, 8 and 9 just right for your face. With time you'll learn how your hair grows and how different spots need to be shaved.

Step 10: Gently wash off your face with cold water. Don't scrub it. This step is both to get the remaining shaving cream off of your face, and to close your pores.

Step 11: Pat your face dry. Again, don't scrub, or you'll irritate your newly shaven skin.

Step 12: If you didn't nick yourself while shaving, put on moisturizing after shave. I recommend Nivea For Men Soothing After Shave Balm. This will help calm down any redness in your skin, and moisturize at the same time. Shaving robs your skin of its natural oils, so this is an essential step to maintaining the health of your skin.

However, if you did nick yourself while shaving, put on an alcohol-based after shave, such as Aqua Velva. Using alcohol-based aftershave too frequently can dry out your skin, but it's great at stopping a nick from bleeding quickly. And, the sting of this type of aftershave is a nice change every once in a while.

And voila, you're done! Like I said, this works very well for me. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully there were some useful tips and suggestions in there.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

CNet: The Fall Of A Once-Great Website

Back in the day, by which I mean the year 2000, I couldn't say enough nice things about the website CNet. They had a great section of reviews of software, hardware, and gadgets in general. They supplied useful computer news to enthusiasts. And, most of all, they had a big hand in popularizing my first big software project, Billy.

I "released" the first version of Billy in late 1999. I put it on my website, uploaded it to Simtel and a couple of other download-oriented websites, and was happy to be getting a download or two each day. Then one day I decided to submit it to CNet's Download.com website, which at that time was pretty much the biggest download website in the world.

As soon as Billy hit Download.com, downloads went through the roof. Right from the beginning, at least 100 people a day were downloading Billy from that site, and that number continued to grow. During Billy's run on Download.com, I estimate at least 200,000 people got the program from that site. And from there, Billy just grew. Once 200,000 people had their hands on my software, it started popping up on other websites, review sites, and traffic to my overall web site started to surge as well.

CNet's Download.com is really significantly responsible for the success of Billy and Leedberg.com.

But then Download.com began to change. Rather than letting people freely submit their software, a fee was required. For a small hobbyist project like Billy (and, I'm guessing, the majority of projects on Download.com), it was next to impossible to pay a fee for this service. So, I pulled Billy from that site. Luckily, it had been up there long enough that I had established a strong hold outside of Download.com as well, so pulling it from that one site did not spell the end of interest in the project.

So, that's evil act #1 -- Download.com went from being the #1 supporter of small, free, high-quality software projects (all posted projects went by an editor first), to suddenly caring more about money. As a result, the software selection on Download.com started to slant more towards demos of commercial software, so it stopped serving its users as well.

It doesn't stop there.

After a couple of years, I visited Download.com again, and found out that they had done away with their fee, and now it was possible for small project to submit for free. Hoping that Download.com had gone back to its roots, I re-submitted Billy. During the submission process, I used a disposable email address from SpamGourmet.

Which brings us to evil act #2 -- Within hours of submitting Billy, spam started to pour in to the disposable account. Apparently, Download.com had made up for the lost fee by selling e-mail addresses to spammers. Most submitters who use their private email address probably would not realize this, but since I used a disposable, single-use email address, it was very apparent.

So Download.com (and CNet in general) has gone from being one of my most respected websites, to being evil, to being forgiven, to being born-again evil. What a tangled web we weave.

I understand that money is necessary for a website the size of CNet to function. However, you shouldn't serve the interests of money at the expense of the users of the site -- otherwise, you'll have a running site but no users! This is obvious in the success of Google versus the decline (in quality) of Yahoo. Whereas Google focused from the beginning of non-obtrusive, relevant text ads, and sticking to a core set of services that users actually wanted, Yahoo continued to add image and animated ads and services no one wants. Just compare their front pages. CNet is using Yahoo's playbook, while they should be emulating Google.

Focus on goodwill towards your users, find a revenue stream that aligns with, but doesn't obstruct, that goodwill, and the money will come. Until then, I once again choose not to use CNet.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Use Jabber!

Instant messaging has proven itself to be one of the truly "disruptive" technologies of the past few years. The primary communication medium for college- and high school-aged people is no longer the telephone, it's their computer, through the use of IM.

IM was pioneered by, of all companies, America Online. Almost from its inception, AOL allowed members to send text messages directly to each other, and maintain "buddy lists" of their friends so they could see who was online and accessible at the moment. Then came the capability to put up "away messages", which serve as a sort of text-based answering machine but with the flexibility to change the message at will.

All of this produced a completely new way of communicating. You could talk to multiple people at once. Talk while doing something else on your computer. You can know exactly who is available at the moment, and where people are if they aren't available. Many of these ideas have made their way into other mediums. For example, cell phones support similar ideas when using push-to-talk phones.

Instant messaging has become incredibly popular with young people, and is making significant inroads in corporations, government, and military environments as well. It is changing the way we communicate -- but the software and protocols we use for IM are a complete mess. There is effectively no truly standard IM protocol today, rather there are several competing protocols and IM services, which are largely not compatible with each other.

We still have AOL and its proprietary protocol. Then we have Microsoft's MSN system. And Yahoo's system. And IBM's SameTime. Even MySpace has an instant messaging component to it. What this means is that someone on AOL can't talk to someone on MSN, who can't talk to someone on Yahoo, and so on. What this really means is that people with friends on multiple networks end up having to install and use all of the client software for each network, which is a completely unworkable long-term solution.

This is not how mature, successful communications mediums are produced. Who would own a phone if they could only call other people who subscribed to the same phone company? As I said earlier, IM is becoming quite popular amongst young people -- but it's never going to become a mass-market communications tool as long as the IM world is so segmented.

Enter Jabber. Jabber is an organization that has, for several years, been developing and promoting XMPP, a true standard for instant messaging. XMPP is a protocol which supports all of the core functionality of the major IM services, such as text messaging and away messages. The difference is that XMPP is designed to be open (so that any IM network can use it) and interoperable, so that if two networks both use XMPP, users of those networks can talk to each other.

XMPP works a lot like email. With email, you have an account through an email provider, say, Verizon. Verizon has a domain for email, such as verizon.net. On Verizon, you have an account name, like xyz, and so your email address becomes xyz@verizon.net. Anyone, even someone with an email account on Google or Yahoo, can send you an email to your Verizon address, because they all use the same email protocol.

Same thing with XMPP. You get your IM account through a service provider, and have an account name on that service. So your XMPP address becomes something of the form user@service.com. Anyone on any network using XMPP can talk to you by using that address.

I firmly believe that this sort of interoperability is what is needed for IM to go to the next level. It needs to become ubiquitous, and that won't happen without interoperability. And to some degree, I've been vindicated by Google -- their Google Talk service uses XMPP and so is able to communicate with other XMPP services.

So why hasn't XMPP caught on?

Namely, because of resistance by the entrenched major players of IM. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo, have not adopted XMPP, and they control the vast majority of the IM market. They really have little reason to use XMPP, from a business standpoint. As long as you need to use AOL's proprietary protocol to talk to other AOL IM users, you will need their client and an account on their service -- which means they can deliver ads to you. If AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo suddenly support open standards, then the IM market would splinter into tons of smaller XMPP-based IM services, and the current big guns would lose their market share. To them, it's not about doing what's right, it's about doing what will maintain their bottom line.

So why don't users just have a mass exodus to XMPP-based services and leave the low-quality proprietary service behind? Because as long as people have friends on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, they will want to keep those accounts in order to talk to those people. The first people to switch networks would be without any one to talk to. Since the dominant market players are not standards-compliant, they've created a vendor lock-in that really makes it hard for people to leave.

But really, why doesn't just every IM user switch to XMPP services at once? Lack of publicity. The majority of users do not know that anything better exists, and so are happy to stay on their closed networks. We need to, somehow, make everyone aware of Jabber and XMPP, how much better it is, and then get people to start switching.

Really, though, there are absolutely no technical reasons why XMPP has not taken off. It is merely because of the above-mentioned reasons, which are largely business and political reasons. XMPP is more than capable of doing everything people are currently doing with their IM services.

So where do we go from here? Google accepting XMPP is a great start. What would be even better is if the really big players, such as AOL, also decided to do the right thing and accept XMPP. If they are so scared of losing market share, they should figure out ways to add value to their XMPP service so people would still choose to have accounts with them. Look at Google's GMail. It's just one email service in a sea of free email services, but has taken over the market since knew just what users wanted and made a great, interoperable service. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo need to do the same thing.

They're maintaining their market share, but at the expense of IM really becoming a de-facto standard for communication. Why wouldn't they want that?

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

I'm Engaged!

It's been quite a while since I last posted here, but that's because a lot has been going on in my life. I generally don't use this blog to talk about my personal life, but I also never said that I wouldn't, so...

I'm engaged! After 5 1/2 years of dating, I proposed to my girlfriend on July 3rd -- right before my favorite holiday! We have a "tradition" (which we've only actually done once before) of going to the Portsmouth, NH, fireworks on July 3rd, then the Merrimack, NH, parade and fireworks on the 4th. So, I proposed on the beach that night after the fireworks. Ever since we first took a night walk on the beach, I knew that's where I wanted to propose.

And she said yes, which made it all the better. We're aiming for a July, 2007 wedding.

Another thing going on is that now we are moving down to Milton, MA. Milton is the closest we could get to being in the middle of our two places of work. We fell in love with the apartment we found. It's a really nice second floor apartment of a house. Great location (15 minutes to Boston, subway stop in town, but still a quiet residential town!), beautiful apartment, nice landlords.

This will slightly shorten my commute from NH, from ~1 hour to probably ~45 minutes. Any decrease in driving is good by me. I've been commuting from NH for the last year, trying to save up money for a house someday. I think that was completely the right thing to do, but I also think now is the right time in my life to take the next step forward and get an apartment that is closer to where I work. I'll still be saving money, just not quite as much.

So life is different lately! Buying engagement rings, wedding planning, apartment searching, moving... this is all new to me! But they're all happy things -- with the requisite sadness that comes with any life-changing event, of course. Exciting times for Greg Leedberg.

When exactly did this "growing up" thing happen to me?

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

What's Up With Bluetooth?

I like to think that I understand the computer industry. Maybe I don't, but I like to think I do. I'm a software engineer. I read Slashdot every day. I talk to lots of people about computers -- both casual users as well as geeks such as myself. I think I've got some perspective on what people use their computers for, what they wish their computers could do, and where the industry is and should be going soon.

As such, I make predictions sometimes. The prediction I've believed in the most is that, some day, we will no longer use cables to connect peripherals to our computers. Rather, everything will be wireless. Buy a printer, set it next to your computer, turn it on, and you can print. Buy a keyboard, set it next to your computer, and you can type. Casual computer users have issues figuring out how to connect wired devices to their computers. What type of cable? Which port on the computer? Which port on the device? How long of a cable? Even the most knowledgable users seem to despise cables -- why can't I bring my keyboard into the living room? Why didn't my printer come with a required cable? Why do I have to help all of my casual computer-using friends set up their printer? A completely wireless set-up would benefit everyone.

Which is why I was completely excited when I first heard of Bluetooth, years ago. Bluetooth is a wireless standard. Any device that supports Bluetooth can connect to any computer that supports Bluetooth. No cables, no specialized wireless receivers, one standard method for connecting wireless devices. Bluetooth was exactly what I had predicted.

However, it seems that Bluetooth has had a lot of trouble truly taking off.

An example: I currently have a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse -- bought separately, because I like Logitech keyboards and Microsoft mice. So I have two wireless receivers sitting underneath my monitor. I am thinking of upgrading both soon, so I figured I could get a Bluetooth-compatible Logitech keyboard, and a Bluetooth-compatible Microsoft mouse, and connect them both through the same Bluetooth adapter. This solution is the very ideal (in my mind) of what Bluetooth can offer to the consumer. However, I could not actually find what I was looking for. Logitech offers no keyboards that support Bluetooth, other than in keyboard-mouse combinations. Even then, there are only two Bluetooth desktop sets available. Microsoft offers just one single mouse that supports Bluetooth, but this mouse is dated and doesn't seem to be readily available. Again, Microsoft has one keyboard-mouse combination that supports Bluetooth, but that is it. There are some notebook mice that use Bluetooth, but I want this for a desktop, so those are out. Logitech and Microsoft seem to have only mildly accepted the benefits of Bluetooth, and are pushing it into a niche market.

The same is true for most other devices. Bluetooth is intended to completely replace cables. However, I looked into connecting my still-relatively-new Canon iP6600D printer via Bluetooth. It is possible, but requires a ~$100 Bluetooth adapter, which is almost what I paid for the printer. Bluetooth headsets exist, but my research into them indicated that reliability under Windows is questionable. For other devices, such as scanners and webcams, Bluetooth compatibility is non-existant.

The only market where Bluetooth seems to really have taken off is the cell phone market. It is now quite normal for cell phones to support Bluetooth in order to allow for wireless headsets and connections to computers. This is nice, but to be honest I don't care about the cell phone market, and I think that if Bluetooth only takes off there, then we have completely wasted its potential.

Bluetooth has the ability to completely change the way we use computers, by making every peripheral wireless, and all wireless peripherals connecting through the same interface. For some reason unknown to me, the big hardware manufacturers, such as Microsoft and Logitech, seem to be ignoring the full potential of Bluetooth, while continuing to produce their own proprietary wireless devices. They obviously "get" that wireless is good, but can't see that wireless will never truly take off as long as every manufacturer has its own incompatible receivers and devices. It's nice to see that Bluetooth has taken off somewhere -- cell phones -- but this is only the surface of what is possible with Bluetooth.

A fully wireless computing environment is my dream, and I really believe in it, and in Bluetooth's ability to make it a reality. As consumers, we need to start demanding more and better Bluetooth devices from the manufacturers. I would say "vote with your wallet", but that's hard to do when the problem is that there aren't many Bluetooth devices to buy.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

No More Word Files!!

No, I'm not declaring that the Microsoft Word file format is dead, or soon to be so. Rather, I'm calling for people to realize why it should be dead (or at least marginalized!).

First, let's soldify what this argument is about. Microsoft Word is a word processor, developed by Microsoft. Over the years, it has become the most-used word processor around the world. Interestingly, it's quite expensive -- Microsoft Office Standard (which includes Word plus a handful of other less-used applications) costs in the neighborhood of $130.

Many arguments have been made against Word on the basis that it is closed-source, while there are free, open source alternatives out there, such as OpenOffice, KOffice, and AbiWord. I'm not here to make this argument. I think that corporations have a right to make money off of their products if they want to (and that other people have the right to make their software available for free, if they want to). Likewise, if someone thinks a product is worth what it costs, they have every right to pay for it. And if having the source code isn't important to them, so be it.

My argument is against the file format Word uses. Whenever you type up a document in Word, you likely save it such that it has a ".doc" extension. This signifies that it is stored in the Word file format. The Word file format is what's considered a "closed " file format. It's binary, so a human wouldn't be able to look at the contents raw and understand them. Worse yet, only Microsoft fully understands the format, and they don't release the specifications of that format. So, only products made by Microsoft can (in theory) fully and reliably read and write Word files. Contrast this with an open file format. Generally, an open file format's raw contents are human-readable, so it's easy to figure out what's going on in the file. Most importantly, the specification for the format is documented and publicly available, so that anybody is free to make a program that can read and write the format.

Ignoring the specific case of Microsoft Word, there are lots of problems with closed (or "proprietary") file formats in general. Most obviously, they lock you into a particular vendor's products. This means if you use Microsoft Word to create a document, to ensure full compatiblity you will always need Microsoft Word in order to read that file. There are some free projects that have attempted to reverse-engineer the Word format, but none of them are 100% accurate. This hurts you in the present, since it means that any computers you own will have to have Microsoft products on them in order for you to carry your work between the computers. More frighteningly, this introduces lots of possible problems in the future. You will basically need a copy of Microsoft Word forever in order to continue to read your files. What if Microsoft goes out of business? Stops making Word? Stops making Word for the particular operating system you are currently using, forcing you to upgrade unwittingly. By creating this lock-in, the closed format decreases competition, as people are less likely to use a competing product if all of their existing files will be unreadable. This is true for any product that uses proprietary formats.

Also, using closed formats is a hinderance to open communication. If you want to type up a document in a closed format such as Word, and send it to someone, they have to have Word as well. This turns the closed file format almost into a "virus" of sorts -- it keeps spreading as people find a need to communicate with someone who already has it. If the person you want to send the file to doesn't have Word, you won't be able to share your information with them.

The above reasons are general arguments against all closed file formats, and they all apply to the Microsoft Word file format. But of course, the Word format has several of its own particular downsides. For one, if you are forced to upgrade to the newest version of Word in order to read your old files, you may very well find that the new version of Word can't actually read your old files. Even though Microsoft has the specifications to this closed format, it has a notorious reputation for somehow making it so that new versions of Word have problems reading certain older files. And of course since only Microsoft has the specification to this format, you're out of luck if you want to try and find some other program to use.

Also, it is a problem that Word is not cross-platform -- it is only available to people that run Microsoft Windows, and Apple's operating systems. So, if you want to send a file to someone using some other operating system, such as Linux or BSD, there is simply no way for them to acquire a copy of Microsoft Word, and you are completely blocked from communicating with them. On this same train of thought, you have to keep in mind that Microsoft Office is a very, very expensive program to purchase. As I said above, $130 just for the most basic functionality. It is entirely possible that this is more than some people can afford, or is more than some people think Office is worth. It's not at all clear to me why someone would assume that their peer has purchased a program that costs this much money. Sending someone Word files may be putting pressure on them to spend the money for Office -- money they may not be able to spare.

So what's the solution? Clearly, the point I'm getting to is that we should try to use open formats rather than closed formats. Currently, the best example of an open format for word processing is OpenDocument. OpenDocument is an open, XML-based, file specification that was developed by a committee of interested organizations. It incorporates the vast majority of word processing features that existing products such as Word offer. However, the specification is completely open, and anybody can produce a product that can read/write it. Several already do, most notably OpenOffice. It is expected that in the future there will be a plugin for Word that will allow it to use this format, and eventually it's likely that Word will even natively support it.

Even if you don't use OpenDocument, use something more open than Word's default format. such as RTF, PDF, or HTML. OpenDocument is probably the best open format for word processing currently, but even if you don't use OpenDocument right now, you should at least use something more open than Word (especially when you send a file to someone). Formats such as RTF, PDF, and HTML are relatively well-understood and/or open, and have both free and commercial readers and writers available for most operating systems. Coincidentally, both RTF and HTML are natively able to be read and written from within Word.

In conclusion, I think that the success of the Word file format is one of the worst things to happen to the computer industry -- ever. It's pretty bad for storing your own personal files, but it's especially bad for cases where you want to share your files with other people -- closed formats simply weren't designed for this. If you need to send a file to someone, please, please, don't send them a Word file. Convert it to something more open. And even if you store your everyday documents in Word format, consider saving your most important documents in a format that you know will still be accessibly 10 years from now.

Of course, ideally, you should just use OpenDocument for everything.

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