binaphobia : Java Glossary


A phobia of binary format files. It is widespread especially in the Unix community.


To understand how this fear got started you must understand what computers were like in the beginning.

In the early days, there was almost no standardisation. A byte was anywhere from 6 to 12 bits, a word anywhere from 8 to 64 bits. Every machine had at least two proprietary floating point formats. Sometimes each installation defined its own custom character set. Some machines were big-endian, some little-endian, some twos-complement, some ones-complement. Reading a file from someone else’s computer was quite an undertaking. It was easier if it was pure characters because then it was easier to decipher the format.

If a program did not work, since the documentation on the format was typically so sketchy, it was easier to deal with human-readable character data than binary data, even if it were more bulky.

Data formats were not taken very seriously. Formats were defined procedurally — whatever the program produced. This sufficed because there was very little interchange of data. If data were exchanged, it would always be read and written by the same program on the same hardware, so there was no need to define precisely what the format was.

Even mag tape densities and proprietary formats and labels caused interchange problems.

Microsoft used binary formats for its MS Word and Excel products. However, they considered the format a proprietary secret. They would often change the format without telling anyone. They arranged formats to be deliberately incompatible as a dodge to trick customers into upgrading. Once Version N+1 has touched a document, Version N could no longer read it. Everyone had to upgrade to Version N+1 at considerable cost, just to be able to read their documents again. Microsoft only sold version N+1, so there was no legitimate way new users in a shop could stick with version N to avoid the problem. Microsoft traumatised programmers against binary formats. Programmers gradually decoded and document the formats as best they could. It was an undertaking comparable to breaking the German enigma code. And there was no guarantee the result was 100% accurate. Whenever programmers think binary format, they instantly associate it with Microsoft’s wicked behaviour. In NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) terms, binary format has become a negative anchor.

CORBA made a brave stab at letting you exchange binary data between different platforms. The catch was CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) made such a production of it, that the very thought made programmers want to lie down and take a nap.


Today, things have changed:


There are several major advantages to binary formats:


XML is probably the fluffiest, least efficient text format ever conceived. It is the complete antithesis of a binary format. Addiction to XML is a symptom of a severe case of binaphobia.


The binaphobic wakes in the night terrified he has written a program to create a binary format and now for some reason he cannot read the data. What can be done to reassure the binaphobic?

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