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An example of a text file icon, one of the common representations of an electronic document.

An electronic document is any electronic media content (other than computer programs or system files) that are intended to be used in either an electronic form or as printed output. Originally, any computer data were considered as something internal — the final data output was always on paper. However, the development of computer networks has made it so that in most cases it is much more convenient to distribute electronic documents than printed ones. And the improvements in electronic display technologies mean that in most cases it is possible to view documents on screen instead of printing them (thus saving paper and the space required to store the printed copies).

However, using electronic documents for final presentation instead of paper has created the problem of multiple incompatible file formats. Even plain text computer files are not free from this problem — e.g. under MS-DOS, most programs could not work correctly with UNIX-style text files (see newline), and for non-English speakers, the different code pages always have been a source of trouble.

Even more problems are connected with complex file formats of various word processors, spreadsheets and graphics software. To alleviate the problem, many software companies distribute free file viewers for their proprietary file formats (one example is Adobe's Acrobat Reader). The other solution is the development of standardized non-proprietary file formats (such as HTML and OpenDocument), and electronic documents for specialized uses have specialized formats – the specialized electronic articles in physics use TeX or PostScript.

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