Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Electronic documents can look as good as the paper originals with new software

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue # 325 January 16, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    If your business is trying to reduce the deluge of paper that floods in, going digital might seem attractive. As we saw last week, a new generation of hardware and software makes it simpler for even small businesses to scan paper documents, convert them to computer-editable digital text, and then index and file them in a more easily retrievable form.

    But if your business is like most, this can create a new set of problems. For example, can you store your digital documents in a form that allows all your users to access them? Perhaps your enterprise has a mix of computer types--a bunch of PCs, most of them running Windows, but a few older machines off in a corner somewhere still running DOS. You may use some Macs for graphics and page design, or maybe you have a UNIX workstation or server. Many offices have different word processors using different fonts.

    You can save your digital documents as plain text, also known as ASCII text. This is the lowest common denominator: every computer can read it, but that's because it throws away all the formatting information--you lose anything related to page layout, design and graphics.

    A relatively new category of software allows you to take digital versions of your paper documents one step further, creating an electronic document that maintains the look of the original, including design, layout, and graphics, and that can be viewed on a wide range of computers, even if they lack the fonts or the application used to create the original. Programs which can do this include Common Ground from Common Ground Software, WordPerfect's Envoy Publisher, and Adobe's Acrobat.

    With any of these products, you can distribute a product catalogue, complete with fancy layout and illustrations, and distribute it widely on floppy disk or CD-ROM to potential customers who use Windows or Macs. Within the company, layouts can be created on the art department's Macs and sent in a form that allows them to be viewed on the PCs used by management.

    Each allows the document creator to add hyperlinks--connections that jump between sections of a document, such as the first instance of a technical term and its definition, or the caption on a picture and a more complete description. As well, readers can search documents for desired information.

    For Common Ground users, an added-cost item called the ProViewer allows readers to add their own electronic bookmarks and annotations--useful for allowing management to add comments before sending the layout proposal back to the art department for revision.

    If you have Novell/WordPerfect's Perfect Office Suite, you already have a copy of Envoy. With Novell aiming to sell off its desktop applications, however, the future of this product is unclear. But if you want a copy of the free Envoy Reader, check the Web site at

    Adobe Acrobat is the most expensive of these products, but in some respects, the most versatile. For example, since Adobe purchased the PageMaker page layout program, the new version 6.0 allows users to automatically convert their page designs into Acrobat format. Adobe has worked hard to make its Portable Document Files (PDFs) a standard across a wide range of computers, and readers which you can freely distribute along with your catalogue exist not only for Windows and Mac computers, but for DOS and UNIX as well. Adobe has also ensured that popular Web browsers such as the latest versions of Netscape Navigator can view Acrobat documents, so these are starting to appear on the Internet as well.

    Any of the wide range of Acrobat Readers can be obtained for free on the Web at Or you can call 1-800-521-1976 and Adobe will send you a free CD-ROM containing the full collection of free readers, along with a collection of sample documents. These include not only sample graphics, but also several complete books, which provide interesting examples of how faithful these sorts of electronic documents can be to print originals, as well as showing how, with the use of hyperlinks and electronic search, they can improve on printed text.

    By using any of these products, your company can produce and distribute electronic documents with all the appeal of full-colour, printed product.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan