Friday, November 15, 2013

Compatible computing

I personally do computing across several platforms and software packages. At home I have been using OSX 10.7.5 Lion, though I recently upgraded to OSX 10.9 Mavericks. Before resigning my position to return to the U.S., I was using Windows 7 on my office computer, on which I had previously installed and used Ubuntu (Linux). Some of the computers in the school were running Windows XP, as does my wife's netbook. Then there's my cellphone running Android (Jellybean) and the Debian (Linux) I run on a virtual computer. Those are the systems I use most often. Others might add one of various tablets, such as my father's Kindle Fire or my wife's soon-to-be-purchased iPad Mini or Surface tablet. (Any suggestions which we should go with?)

This is the reality of computing in 2013: cross-platform. It is next to impossible to find anyone who can completely subsist in just one ecosystem. Not only are people using different types of devices, each having different operating systems, but people are using different versions of those operating systems: for example, Windows XP (archaic), Windows 7 and Windows 8. Within each of these, people are using different software packages: iWork, Office, LibreOffice, etc. This can cause headaches when people running different softwares (e.g. Pages and Word) or different versions of the same software (e.g. Word 2007 and Word 2010) try to share documents. And then what if people have different font packages? The opportunities for less-than-ideal compatibility go on and on.

Given the reality of computing today, I am often dismayed by the relative lack of technological consideration often demonstrated when people share documents. Is it really a good idea to assume that all the other users will be using the same software you are when they open that doc, docx, odt or pages file? Are you sure the formatting will stay the same in each of the software versions other users will be using? Below are some strategies I use to try to navigate these waters of incompatibility.

The Cloud

This is by far the easiest and safest (from a compatibility perspective) way to collaborate and share documents. Whether it be Google Docs, Microsoft Skydrive or another similar web-based office suite, the cloud will always provide maximum compatibility. A presentation run through Google Drive will look the same on any computer. A document written and formatted using Skydrive will look the same to any user who logs into the online document.

There are, however, a few weaknesses to the cloud. This approach assumes the web browsers being used are able to handle the web apps, but this should not be a problem for most. (I personally prefer Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.) Also, the formatting capabilities of these web-based office suites are generally neither as powerful nor as comprehensive as those found in desktop publishing software packages. The biggest turn-off for many may be that it simply takes time to become familiar with using the cloud well, which in today’s go-go, time-is-money society is a completely understandable reason. Nevertheless, from a max compatibility standpoint, the cloud is really the way to go.

Desktop Publishing

First, let’s be clear: Word, Pages, Writer, etc. are publishing softwares. They should be used to format documents and prepare them for distribution. Finished documents, however, should never be sent as software-specific documents (e.g. doc, docx, odt, pages, etc.)

After spending your valuable time to make sure your content (e.g. text, diagrams, photos) fits perfectly on each page of a document using Word 2010, for example, it should never be assumed that the pages will look the same when your colleague down the hall (or across the ocean) opens the dock in Word 2007 using Windows XP. This is an even bigger headache when Mac users receive the same doc or docx and try opening it in Pages. Yes, Mac users can and do also buy and use Microsoft Word, but why run redundant apps? Rather than lamenting that the other people get with it and use whatever suite you happen to use, it would be much more productive use cross-platform documents.

Read-only docs: pdf

If your document is already a finished product, not something you want others to edit or proofread, try this: save or export the document as a pdf. It doesn't matter what publishing software you use; these days they can all create pdf files. Some softwares make it possible by selecting “save as”, whereas others may use “export”. You may have to dig around, but believe me: it’s there. And what’s the benefit? One, you save the beauty of your work from the incompatibility gremlins. Two, none of your recipients will swear under their breath about incompatibility issues.

Info collection: txt

Sometimes it may be unavoidable; you may have to send specific formats such as docx, pages and the like. But, when collaboration and text is the primary focus and formatting can be left to a later date, save (or export) your work as txt. Better yet: use simple text editors like TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (Windows), or even TextWrangler or Vim. I happen to be using TextEdit to compose this post, and I'll format it once I get into Blogger. The text isn’t attractive, but unfinished products don’t need to be. If compatibility is the goal and text is the content, go with txt.


Prezi is wonderful. Unless done very well, I quickly become bored with traditional slideshows, whether they be done on Powerpoint, Keynote or others. A presentation is still a presentation, but if you want to spice things up a bit, go with the Prezi web app. Plus, teachers get extra storage space!

When considering compatibility, Prezi is also ideal. If you happen to be presenting in a context with internet access, the presentation can be delivered straight from the web browser, just like Google Drive or Skydrive presentations. As an added bonus, however, should you have limited or no internet access in your presentation venue, Prezi presentations are downloadable. If you download a Prezi presentation, you’ll get a zip file with both .exe and .app files, both of which are self-contained applications that run only that individual presentation. This means the presentation will run exactly as designed whether using Windows or OSX. Thus far I’ve run these using Windows XP, Windows 7 and OSX Lion with nary a glitch.


Above are just a few suggestions for better compatibility. Yes, it takes an extra step or two, and you may have to spend a little time getting used to new ways of doing things, but unless all your colleagues, students and friends are using the same ecosystems you use, these extra steps make a world of difference for everyone.


  1. Matt, try Nearpod App, it really helps with student engagement.

    1. That looks great! It seems that I actually need to be part of an institution (school) before I can download the app, however. I may have to wait to test it out.