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What is a File Format?

By Troy Holmes
Updated May 16, 2024
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The majority of modern civilization relies on system automation and computer processing. Each computer device holds files of data that are typically used by individual applications in the computer. A file format is the defined specification on how a file will be encoded for storage within the computer.

Encoding is the transforming of data into a specific file format. Files must be encoded before they can be saved into a file storage device. This encoding process is necessary for a software program to understand the information in the file.

A word processing application is a computer program designed to automate the writing of documents. Special characters are used within these applications to capture commands such as tabs, indention, and font size. These special characters are encoded into a file format when the document is saved. This encoding makes it possible for the software to present the document in the same style in which it was saved.

Typically file formats are not interchangeable between software applications. Each software vendor creates a proprietary file format for his specific software application. This makes sharing files between software applications extremely difficult.

MP3 is a digital audio file encoding format that is widely available today. This format enables audio devices to play music. By defining a standard format for digital audio, files can be easily shared between computer systems. Most modern stereo systems and car audio system support the MP3 format.

With the explosion of the Internet, formats have become a regular alphabet soup. There is a wide range of video and audio file formats available today. These formats are required for video software applications to understand how transmit a video onto a monitor. This non-standard approach to formats has put the burden of format management on the users of applications.

Computer graphics and photography files have different formats. These format types a unique based on the clarity and size of the file that will be saved. The file size of a photograph is based on the clarity required for a photograph. Higher clarity requires a larger file size to support the encoding of special data elements necessary for photos.

Encryption is another form of file format. Software encryption is the process of transforming a set of data into an unreadable format. This format can only be unencrypted with a special key. Software encryption is typically used for securing sensitive files from unwanted viewing.

Not all file formats are proprietary. Today there are several open file formats available on the Internet. The use of open file formats makes sharing information easier between computers.

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