From the January 2003 issue of Startups

These days, businesses are converting paper documents, business plans, financial reports and pictures to electronic format for the computer. Digitizing files not only cuts down on the ghastly amount of paper floating around the office and filing cabinets, but it also makes document sharing much easier and file management more efficient. Why overnight a business proposal when it is much simpler and more cost-effective to e-mail it? Why spend hours paging through a filing cabinet when the computer can search and retrieve a document almost instantaneously?

Converting files into a digital format, however, is easier said than done thanks to the confusion brought on by the quantity of file formats available. Here, we'll break down your options when it comes to digitizing images and documents.

Next Step
Visit our Tech Channel for more tips on making your business tech-savvy.

Converting Images
When dealing with images, there are three main file types, each with important differences: GIF, JPEG and TIFF.

  • GIFs (.gif) work fine for taking low-color pictures to the Web. The GIF format was created specifically for the Internet and has the most compression of all graphic formats available. This means that the file sizes are extremely small and load quickly--important for any Web site. GIFs are limiting, however, since the only pictures that end up looking good are those with very few colors. Clipart, logos or graphics created on the computer are ideal for GIF format, while a colorful product photo would end up looking drab and drained.
  • JPEGs (.jpg) are great for more detailed pictures that need to go on the Web or in a document such as a PowerPoint presentation. The compression for JPEGs is much more flexible than that of GIFs and uses a quality scale from 1 to 100 that directly corresponds with image size. A picture that needs to go on the company Web site might be saved at the medium setting of 50 to 60, while a picture that will be printed out or included on a brochure should be saved toward the high end of the quality scale, at about 90 to 100. While JPEGs can be saved in much higher quality than GIFs, they are still not always detailed enough for high-quality printing in magazines or on photo paper.
  • TIFF files (.tif) are the ultimate in high quality, and they have the largest file size. While GIFs and JPEGs use compression technologies to keep file size low, TIFFs are completely uncompressed, which means a picture taken with a digital camera, or one that's been scanned in, won't lose any quality. If a person doesn't know how a digitized picture will ultimately be used, storing the pictures in TIFF format is a good idea. This way, the pictures can later be converted to JPEG or GIF for use on a Web site or in another project that doesn't require such a detailed image. Images can always be reduced in quality and size, but never increased past the original image resolution without image distortion and blurring taking place.

Converting Documents
Digitizing documents is entirely different from working with images. Whereas an image or photo is usually not too large, documents can be hundreds of pages long and virtually impossible to convert to image files because it would take an extremely long time, there would be many separate images (one per sheet), and the resulting file sizes would be obnoxiously cumbersome.

Another problem with digitizing documents is format retention. A common misconception about digital documents is that the layout, images and fonts used in a file format like Word can be seen by anybody to whom the file is sent. First, many of the file recipients may not even have Word and won't be able to open the document. Those who do have Word still might not be able to see the document as it was intended if they don't have the correct fonts installed on their local computer. For example, if the document creator downloads a Halloween font and uses it in the document, none of the file recipients will be able to see the font unless they, too, download and install it.

The solution to both of these problems is to use Portable Document Format (.pdf), or PDF. Unlike TIFF, GIF and JPEG, PDF is not free to use. The PDF file format was created by Adobe and can only be created using Adobe Acrobat, and can only be read using Adobe Acrobat Reader. While Acrobat is extremely expensive--$500 to buy or $29 per month to use online--its benefits make it well worth the money.

Adobe PDF is a universal file format that preserves all the fonts, formatting, graphics and color of any source document, regardless of the application and platform used to create it. PDF files are compact and can be shared, viewed, navigated and printed exactly as intended by anyone with the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software. (There are currently more than 300 million computers with Acrobat Reader installed.)

Using Adobe, documents can be easily converted to PDF from applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Web pages or entire sites can also be easily converted with all links intact for offline viewing and archiving. Even forms can be converted to the Interactive PDF format, complete with pop-up boxes, buttons and text fields that can include automatic calculations and operation. In addition to maintaining perfect formatting, the PDF files are much smaller in size than their originating files, but the quality is not compromised. Once created, PDF files can be uploaded to a Web site, sent to a publisher for printing, e-mailed to co-workers or simply archived on a network for easy document management.

No matter which file format is correct for your files, transferring paper files to the digital world is a very savvy and efficient method of document management and distribution that should be a part of your business operations.