The strings command reproduces any text strings that it finds in a binary file. It is often a useful last resort for trying to get some information out of a file that you have no other way of opening. It can sometimes be quite revealing. As I was revising this chapter, I saw a story on a news site about how someone had predicted that Apple would be offering video downloads and video-on-demand simply by running strings on the latest version of the iTunes application.

Ultimately, in Linux, there is a very strong predisposition in favor of text formats, both for configuration files and for containing information produced by applications. Text formats are by their nature open formats, and they are also formats that can easily be manipulated by scripts and the tools that we have presented here. We recommend learning about these tools and getting used to them by experimenting with them. You will find this to be both useful and fun.

lain text is our favorite file format. It is readable everywhere and depends only on the universally understood ASCII (and these days, possibly Unicode) format. You are not limited to a specific program to read or create plain text, or to view it.

In the world of Windows, the naive user thinks (and this is what the application vendor wants him to think) that just to write a shopping list, he should use a proprietary word processing application. When he sends that shopping list to his friend by e-mail, he attaches the binary file (which requires a copy of the original application or a filter built into another one) to read it.

The Windows registry consists of binary files (which again require special tools for manipulation). Most Windows applications store their files in binary formats.

In Linux, almost all configuration files, log files, and other system information are held in plain text. The only exceptions are one or two databases (for example, the file /var/log/wtmp, which holds the history of logins that can be accessed by the command last). In the case of applications, most native Linux applications that have their own file formats use a form of modified text, rather than a binary format. For example, the Gnumeric spreadsheet uses an Extensible Markup Language (XML) format (gzipped to reduce the file size). So does the GNOME diagram editor, Dia. documents are zipped archives containing XML files. XML is a sensible format for this kind of thing because it is a natural way of creating structure in a file that is pure text. And the beauty of it is that we can read all the information from the file (and process it and manipulate it in various ways) without having the original application. In some ways, open file formats (and other related open standards) are as important for computing freedom as open source applications.


The politics of text editors Choosing a text editor Using vi Using emacs

Because of the importance of plain text as a format, and because of the need to edit all kinds of text files on Linux, the question of which text editors are available and which ones to use is an important one.

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