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In fact, you can save data from almost any program so that it is viewable on the Web, without a converter, as browsers are not restricted to displaying Web pages.

For a start, they can display plain text files.  This means that if you already have material in plain text format, you can simply put it on your Web site and people will be able to read it. Of course, it will look rather boring, and it won't have Web-specific features like links, but if it contains useful information, this will be better than nothing. And it also means that no matter how ancient your word-processor or database you will be able to put material on the Web as long as you can save it as ASCII text.(View this page as a plain text file in your browser.)

But Web browsers can in fact deal with any type of file. If the browser finds a file it does not know how to deal with, it will offer you two main options:

  • save to disk so that you can look at the file by using another piece of software; or
  • tell it which software to use to display the file.

Browsers can be configured to call up particular software to display particular types of file, so, for example, you could tell your browser that it should automatically start Microsoft Word whenever it comes across a file with the extension .doc. In fact this is precisely how Web browsers deal with sound and video - they do not have these facilities built-in, but they look for "helper applications" to call up when they come across sound or video files.

This extensibility is one of the key features which provide future-proofing for the Web - browsers can cope with any file format, even ones which haven't been invented yet.

There are, however, two issues which you need to consider when providing files that your readers are going to download rather than read on-line: file format, and file size.

While HTML and the graphics formats used on the Web are standard (and can be handled by any type of computer), if you make, say, a word-processor file available for downloading, you will need to consider making it available in a format that all your readers can deal with, whatever hardware and software they have got.

  • For word-processor files, RTF format is one that can be created and read by all major word-processors.
  • For database files, dBase and CSV are formats that can be read by any commercial database software
  • For spreadsheets, standard formats are Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel.

You will notice that word-processor, database, and spreadsheet files tend to be larger than text files. For this reason, it is not uncommon to compress files that you are making available for downloading. Compressed files are usually at least 20%-30% smaller than the original file, and can be as much as 70% smaller. This represents a significant reduction in the time it takes to download them, and, of course, compressed files also take up less Web space.

A further advantage of compression is that it allows you collect many different files into a single compressed file (often called an archive). This makes it easy to ensure that a reader downloads all of a group of files that belong together, and so is the normal way of providing software, for example. In order to compress files, you will need an appropriate archiver for your computer.1

When you make a file available on your Web site, you provide access to it simply by including a link to it on a page. It is also helpful to tell your readers what format the file is in and the file size.


[1] TUCOWS has many compression utilities for Windows and Macintosh.

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2. Web Publishing Software