Bugs & Fixes: Poor Rich Text Format (RTF) support in iOS

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There’s an item that’s been near the top of my iOS wish list almost since the iPhone was released: RTF (rich text format) support. Before you start shouting that iOS already has such support, allow me to rewind to the beginning of the story.

If all one means by RTF support is the ability to create bold, italicized, and underlined text, then yes, this feature has been available from an assortment of iOS apps for quite some time. For example, you’ll find it in “Office” apps such as QuickOffice and Office² HD. These apps go beyond the just-mentioned trio of font styling options, allowing for a variety of fonts, font sizes, and colors. With Office² HD, you can even insert graphics into a document. Apple’s iWork for iOS apps provide similar formatting support.

So what’s the problem? For one thing, until iOS 5, Apple did not include any system frameworks for RTF formatting. As a result, each app had to invent its own method for offering these options. This limited the number of apps that would or could provide RTF support.

With iOS 5, Apple did add a limited rich text formatting capability. You can see it in action in the Mail app, where you can select among bold, italics, and underlined text when composing a message. However, even here, there are several significant caveats.

First, accessing these style changes requires going through a cumbersome series of steps that most people will never bother to use, even if they manage to figure it out (see Macworld’s review of iOS 5 for all the gory details). Having a Bluetooth keyboard is of no help; Command-key shortcuts for these options don’t work.

Mail in iOS 5 allows you to format text, assuming you can find where these options are hiding.

Second, the RTF options remain a private framework for now. This means that third-party apps can’t access it. As far as I can tell, even Apple is restricting use of the framework to just the Mail app for now.

A third problem is that RTF changes in Mail do not survive a copy-paste. This means, for example, if you copy italicized text and paste it, the pasted text will lose its italics. This is true even if you paste within the same document from which you originally copied the formatted text. This problem extends, to a lesser extent, to all apps that offer RTF formatting. For example, if you copy italicized text from one app and paste it into a document from another app, the italics will be lost even if the receiving app has RTF support.

Even if Apple overcomes all of these iOS limitations, there remains one overriding omission. As far as I know, you cannot edit .rtf documents in any iOS app. This is problematic for me because, on my Mac, I do almost all my article writing in TextEdit. As such, I save documents in TextEdit’s default .rtf file format. I prefer this because RTF files are widely supported and can be opened by almost any application. Further, as all of my article writing is for online posting, I don’t need the fancier features of other word-processing programs. All I really need are basic font formatting options plus embedded URLs.

For those times when I might like to work on my iPad, rather than my Mac, it would be great if I could transfer a .rtf file from my Mac to my iPad and continue to edit it there. Alas, this is not possible. I can view .rtf documents on my iPad, but not edit them. A partial workaround would be to save my TextEdit documents in a Word format and open them in an iPad app such as QuickOffice. While this largely works (except that embedded links do not transfer), I would prefer a more direct solution.

At last, I return to my assertion at the top of this column. I would like to see adequate RTF support in iOS. Specifically, I would like iOS to provide frameworks, accessible by third-party apps, that provide the basic font formatting options available in applications such as QuickOffice—with the addition of support for embedded URLs. I would like these formatting options to be easy to implement and to survive a copy and paste operation. And I would like iOS apps that can edit .rtf files created in TextEdit. I don’t expect to see all of this happen any time soon. But, if Apple intends to push the iPad as a productivity machine, I expect such changes will arrive eventually.

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