In computing, plain text is the contents of an ordinary sequential file readable as textual material without much processing, usually opposed to formatted text.
The encoding has traditionally been either ASCII, one of its many derivatives such as ISO/IEC 646 etc., or sometimes EBCDIC.
Unicode is today gradually replacing the older ASCII derivatives limited to 7 or 8 bit codes.
The purpose of using plain text today is primarily a "lowest common denominator" independence from programs that require their very own special encoding or formatting (with due sacrifices and limitations). Plain text files can be opened, read, and edited with most text editors. Examples include Notepad (Windows), edit (DOS), ed, emacs, vi, vim, Gedit or nano (Unix, Linux), SimpleText (Mac OS), or TextEdit (Mac OS X). Other computer programs are also capable of reading and importing plain text. It can also be used by simple computer tools such as line printing text commands like
type (DOS and Windows) and
cat (Unix), but also for more complex activities like web browsers, i.e. Lynx and the Line Mode Browser.
Plain text files are almost universal in programming; a source code file containing instructions in a programming language is almost always a plain text file. Plain text is also commonly used for configuration files, which are read for saved settings at the startup of a program.
Plain text is the original and ever popular method of conveying e-mail. HTML formatted e-mail messages often include an automatically-generated plain text copy as well, for compatibility reasons.
Text was once commonly encoded in ASCII, using 8 bits for one letter or other character, encoding 7 bits, allowing 128 values, and using the 8th as a checksum bit when transferring a file. This just allowed the ordinary Latin alphabet, transfer control codes, parentheses and interpunction, which annoyed computer users, especially Portuguese and Swedish users. Therefore, when data transfer became more stable, the remaining 128 values were encoded everywhere differently, and in a way that made multilingual texts impossible to encode. At last Unicode was defined, which currently allows for 1,114,112 code values used for any modern text writing system, and a lot of extinct ones. For example, Unicode codes Chinese, Hebrew, and Cyrillic as well as Latin. Some of these text formats may be quite complicated to process correctly, but they still contain no structural data, such as bold start and end markers, and are therefore plain text.
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