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Special Delivery: Alternatives for Online Contents...
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A web site is a useful, economical way to distribute information, and you're not limited to web pages for making information available.  Some types of information can be distributed from your site as downloadable files.

Deliver your contents...

As with all things related to computers and the Internet, there are trade-offs and compromises for whatever method of delivery you choose.  Generally, a standard web page is more expensive.  The contents must be edited for packaging within HTML, the standard language of the Internet.  Properly prepared, a downloadable file requires no additional processing for online delivery.

Choosing the right delivery method

A web site is essentially a presentation of your contents.  Web pages are constructed to display your information in a user's browser.  Depending on the nature of the information, this can require a lot of work by a skilled technician.

In budgeting resources for an effective site, it pays to realize that not everything requires an online display.  Sometimes, your purpose is better served by an alternate form of online delivery, one that doesn't need the extra layers of work required to create web pages.

When appropriate, information prepared and distributed as a downloadable file is both more efficient and more economical.

When to choose downloadable...

The key to choosing whether to utilize downloadable files lies in the distinction between presentation and distribution.

If you want the information to be displayed on the site, available to anyone with a browser and Internet connection, you need a web page to present it.  The cost of the page (or pages) is a function of how much preparation is required to present the materials with a suitable degree of style to maintain consistency with the rest of your site.

If your goal is simple distribution, downloadable files can be a better choice.  This is particularly true when distributing materials with extensive formatting requirements, such as legal forms, employee manuals, and similar items.  Where extensive work has already been performed to prepare such materials for printed distribution, the case for making them downloadable is even stronger.

Made available as a downloadable file, the information arrives on your user's desktop exactly as created, with no intervening translation effects involved in web page packaging.

Know the limitations...

There are some major issues to be considered in creating files for downloadable delivery.  The chief problem with the method is additional requirements for the user.

A properly designed web page will be available to anyone with an Internet connection and supported browser.  Downloadable files require additional software on a user's computer.  It is essential to understand the implications of this fact.

The primary problem, of course, is that not everyone has, or knows how to use, the same software.  If you create a document file in MS Word, for example, someone who has only WordPerfect may not be able to read it.  Although most modern packages include format translation features, the translation is often somewhat less than perfect.

The more a document relies upon advanced features of the program used to create it, the less likely it will translate to another program's format.  It is therefore essential to consider the intended audience- the more varied your users, the more generic or "universal" your downloadable files must be.

Good news, bad news...

Fortunately, there are relatively easy ways of dealing with the format issue.  The preferred method is to create your downloadable files in a special format known as PDF, for Portable Document File.  These are properly known as Acrobat files, developed by Adobe Systems.

The Acrobat Reader, which enables users to view and print files in this format, is preinstalled on many personal computers, and available as a free download from Adobe.  Acrobat is particularly useful where absolute fidelity to the original is required.  PDF packaging preserves typefaces, margins, illustrations, form spacing, and so on.

It is a very popular format, used to deliver legal forms, software manuals, product catalogs, and many other types of content.  It is as close to "standard" as is currently available.

Later versions of WordPerfect, Omniform Pro, Corel Draw, and some other packages allow saving or export to this format, but to fully utilize the advantages of Acrobat, you need the full version of the program (please see links at the end of this article).

Users of Microsoft Office components Word or Excel have another option.  Like Adobe, Microsoft provides free downloads of "reader" software that allows a user to view and print documents created in these formats.  As with web pages, it is important to restrict your use of fonts to standard ones like Ariel and Times Roman.  Others may not be available on a user's system, which could wreak havoc with page layout and readability.

Know your audience...

Unfortunately, user skills and knowledge vary widely.  Unless the required software is present and configured on a user's machine, it will be necessary to download and install the appropriate reader package.

New or unskilled users may find the process intimidating, and users on networked or public systems may not be permitted to install the reader software.  The result is that your content, if delivered in this form, may be inaccessible for some of your site's visitors.

As a site administrator, you must decide whether the limitations of downloadable information files are too restrictive for the intended users of your site.  Bear in mind, however, that not all content is intended for all users.  You can make more demands of your employees, for example, than you'd want to impose on customers.

If you are providing technical support for your site's users, another wrinkle appears.  When reader software is installed, there are sometimes multiple configuration options.  Support personnel must be familiar with the various behaviors the software may exhibit. 

Consider your contents...

Prime candidates for downloadable information files are those with a specific audience.  Job applications, for example, translate from print to PDF almost perfectly, and it's entirely reasonable to require an applicant to acquire and use the Adobe Reader.

Internal documents intended primarily for employees, like manuals or benefits descriptions, can be distributed this way, in whatever format will be most convenient for the greatest number.

On the other hand, materials intended for general access by the widest audience should be done in standard HTML, adjusted for browser incompatibilities.

Between the two extremes of what might be required are many compromises.  Any modern word processor, for example, can read a format known as RTF (Rich Text Format).  This works fine for materials with minimal requirements, but is not always suitable for tabular content (rows and columns).  Older or simpler programs can't handle tables, some deal with tabs in different ways, and others have been known to delete multiple space characters.  These limitations make RTF a poor choice for forms or other items where spacing and page layout are important.

We recommend...

For specifically targeted audiences, Word or Excel files are easily read and printed by the appropriate reader software, but remember to avoid advanced features like collapsible outlines, macro's, and hidden comments.

For the most reliable delivery of downloadable information files, we recommend Adobe Acrobat's PDF format.  Although alternatives exist for producing files in this format, you will achieve the most benefit and flexibility from the Acrobat program package.

When making downloadable files a web site option, be sure to specify which software is required, and include links to the appropriate reader software if available.

Find out more about Adobe Acrobat...

Read user reviews...

   Purchase it here...


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