Here's how to find the needles in haystack

It's not too late to think of how innovative software tools hinder communication rather
than improve it.

Take the flood of information being published electronically in Adobe Systems' Acrobat
format. Sometimes this is just a waste of time, money and hard-drive capacity. Yes,
hypertext publishing can improve readability and content. It's wonderful, for example,
with a page full of complex charts and tiny print that you couldn't even distribute by fax
because of the resolution.

But is anything gained by publishing plain-text documents in Acrobat format?

The other day I downloaded a four-page newsletter that should have been an 8K ASCII
text file. It ballooned into a 28K Acrobat .PDF file, taking three times longer to
download and occupying three times as much storage room. I'm not worrying about the extra
20K in itself, but I download many, far larger files.

What did I, the ultimate user, gain for that extra file size? First, I had to make room
for Microsoft Windows 95--50M or so, plus Acrobat Reader, another 1.6M. I could have
downloaded and read the same text in ASCII on the most humble old MS-DOS PC.

In return for meeting the greatly increased requirements, I got a text document
formatted with a few underlines and a fancy looking title. I also got the ability to
search the text--something I could have done by importing the shorter ASCII file into any
word processor.

There's an easy way to magnify parts of a .PDF file, but this document had margins so
wide that the resulting image was either too small to read on a 14-inch monitor or so
large I had to scroll left to right to read a line. There was no intermediate
magnification to fit the actual text to the screen. In contrast, with plain ASCII text in
most word processors, you could do all that in a variety of font sizes.

Lastly, it proved almost impossible to print out the .PDF document on a PostScript
printer. Even when I tried to print one page at a time, Windows and the printer refused to
work together.

I can't figure out who benefited from this format besides the on-line service and phone
company that charged three times the connect fees. I certainly didn't benefit from having
a file that was as difficult to print as it was to read on screen. The newsletter
publisher gained nothing, because I won't pay for and download another such newsletter in
such an inconvenient format.

Fancy electronic publishing does have its uses for complex documents or hypertext
links, but sometimes it's a waste of bandwidth, time and money. The same is true of the
many Web pages that seem intended, like most television programs, to occupy as much time
and provide as little real information as possible--while trying to conceal the vacuum
with lots of bells and whistles.

Thousands of excellent Web pages are packed with information and useful links.
Unfortunately, tens of thousands more take too long to load and leave us disappointed.

The government is beginning to develop ways to provide more of its information to the
public. When your agency ponders formats, please don't forget that fancy electronic
publishing of simple text documents detracts significantly from their usefulness and takes
an inordinate amount of time and money.

This not an attack on electronic publishing or Web page creation software. Both fill an
important need. But it is a reminder to those in charge who disseminate agency information
that sometimes less is more.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. He welcomes mail from readers. Write to him care of
Government Computer News, 8601 Georgia Ave., Suite 300, Silver Spring, Md. 20910.

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