Monday, January 9, 2012


I hate Microsoft for oh so many reasons, but the latest one is the sheer stupidity of ExFAT.

If you're like me, you probably have never heard of ExFAT but I had a chance encounter with it the other day when a friend brought over a USB thumbdrive with some files on it. I popped it into my computer only to find that the drive couldn't be recognized. OK, fair enough, USB thumbdrives are quirky sometimes. So my friend plugs it into his laptop and it wouldn't recognize it. And yet his work computer used the thumbdrive just fine.

Here's what we discovered after about an hour of research:

Microsoft has invented a new format for thumbdrives and has patented it, so that no one else can use it without paying them a fee.

That goes against every bit of logic and every good technological trend of the modern enlightened world. Think about what thumbdrive is. It's a convenient and easy way for you to take your files from one computer to another, so the ideal format would be open and free so that no matter what computer you put your thumbdrive into, the files can be read. But no, instead Microsoft patents the format and charges money for other companies to use it.

Imagine if the internet worked like that. You went to a website to get some information but the website patented all the way the data was conveyed. It looks like gibberish to you unless the manufacturer of your computer has paid a licensing fee. Or email!  Let's say you email yourself a file. Unfortunately, you have a Yahoo account and your friend has Gmail, and the two don't talk to one another.

I'd be fine if Microsoft would patent their website so that no one could get onto it. But you know they'd never do that, since they want people to go to their site and learn about them (or at least how they market themselves).

My point is that Microsoft is fine with using open standards when it benefits them, and very intentionally closes technology when it also benefits them. This means that they have ensured that anyone who wants to read their thumbdrives must somehow pay a fee.

My friend's laptop is a Macbook. He hadn't updated in a while so it was running Snow Leopard, but not the right version. That's why it wasn't reading the data. I have an HP laptop with Fedora Linux on it. Linux isn't owned by a company so cannot afford to pay Microsoft's extortion fee, so I'll probably never get to read data from an ExFAT drive. My friend ran Software Update and got to a version where his computer would see the data, and then we did some fancy networking tricks to send the data from his Mac to my Fedora laptop, but that's just not why thumbdrives were invented.

So the thing to do is, if you buy a thumbdrive, immediately format it to something you know you and your friends can actually use. Unfortunately, the most universal (only because it's so old and arcane that no one cares about it anymore) is Microsoft's FAT format.

On a Mac, go to Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility and choose to Erase the thumbdrive. Set the format as FAT if you intend to share data with Linux or PC's.  If you're only going to be around other Macs, you can format it as HFS+ Journaled Case-Sensitive. Don't ask me what all of that means, just trust me.

On Fedora Linux, open up Disk Utility and erase the thumbdrive, choose FAT as the filesystem format. If you're only going to be sharing files with Linux then you can do EXT2 but I find this is rarely the case, for the same reason that I wouldn't advise ExFAT. Thumbdrives are meant to be shared. That's one of the primary reasons we buy them.

Good luck. And don't encourage Microsoft, please. Do not use ExFAT, and do not accept their extortionist ways. And shame on Apple for paying their licensing fee.

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