Browsers solve the puzzling Case of the File Format Jugglers

 


Web browsers can do lots more than just read and display Hypertext Markup Language
documents.


That's good news if you're looking for creative ways to share agency information over
the Internet. But it's bad news if you're a network manager maintaining Web clients for
dozens of end users.


As people rush to post documents on the Web, some don't make the effort to convert
files to standard Web formats. More and more plug-ins and helper applications are
available to display a multitude of file formats, so it's getting too easy for Webmasters
to shuffle the responsibility for file conversions off to their end users.


If you're the keeper of an Internet gateway, you've probably already seen some of your
users bewildered by files downloaded with cryptic extensions. For example, many federal
workers are familiar with Adobe Systems' Acrobat .pdf portable document format. Not many
know .m2a, the Motion Picture Experts Group-2 compressed audio format, either.


Questions about these and other new formats are sure to increase the workload for
support staff. Are you ready to decipher such files yourself?


A good place to look for help is the Common Internet File Formats page maintained by
Eric Perlman and Ian Kallen for Internet Literacy Consultants at http://www.matisse.net/files/formats.html.
 


You'll find a table listing file types and the Microsoft Windows or Apple Macintosh
helper files needed to convert them. For instance, you'll learn that .z is a file
compressed with a Unix utility. This suggests decompression with shareware utilities, and
there are hot links for you download them.


Once a file is decompressed, you still might need a special program to view it. To
understand how files created for various platforms relate, and what you need to view them
on different platforms, check out the Cross-Platform Page maintained by Eric Bennett at http://www.mcad.edu/guests/ericb/xplat.html.
 


This is a comprehensive list of resources for reading and converting image, video,
audio and data compression/encoding file formats on common computer systems. About half
the tools are aimed at Mac users, who have a lot of compatibility issues. But you'll find
many good resources for Windows and Unix users, too.


For questions about multimedia file formats, look for Allison Zhang's "Multimedia
File Formats on the Internet: A Beginner's Guide for PC Users." It has 10 chapters on
dealing with issues such as QuickTime-to-.avi conversions and installing media players.


If this sounds too much like heavy-duty research, there's a better way to deal with
mystery files. Arm yourself with software tools that run interference for you by trying to
open files and display the contents without bothering you.


One of the best such utilities I've seen is KeyView from FTP Software Inc. of Andover,
Mass. This $49.95 package works as a standalone utility or as a Netscape Navigator
plug-in.


When Netscape encounters one of about 200 file formats, KeyView converts the file so
you can view it. It's very similar to Inso Corp.'s QuickView Plus, but with a Web
interface. KeyView also lets you compress and decompress files on the fly.


It's not perfect--I downloaded a piece of compressed Macintosh software to a PC, then
had to wait while KeyView automatically scanned it, tried to display it and pronounced it
an unknown format or a possibly damaged file (it wasn't).


But KeyView's strong points, such as viewing spreadsheets and Acrobat, MPEG, .avi and
QuickTime files without having to locate and download all those individual plug-ins, make
it extremely useful.


I already had utilities installed for viewing about 10 of its file formats, and I used
to waste a lot of time finding them. Once you open a file with KeyView, you usually can
cut and paste text, graphics or multimedia files to other programs.


It's also worth having Tim Kientzle's book, "Internet File Formats," from
Coriolis Group Books. It's $39.95, with a CD-ROM full of conversion utilities, and it
tells how to recognize file types even with extensions missing and ways to discover how a
file was compressed if your system doesn't recognize it. "Federal network managers
who must field questions about opening strange downloads can pull out this volume, or open
KeyView, and seem like a translation wizard without having to amass their own tool sets.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer. He
is developing and maintaining a corporate Web site for GCN's parent, Cahners Publishing Co
.


About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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