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Document Viewers Make It Easier to Show and Tell on the Internet


For all the chatter about information superhighways and how communications technologies are changing the world, cyberspace today remains a "words only" domain.

You want to send e-mail via Prodigy? No problem. You want to exchange memos on the Internet? Fine. But as soon as you try to view pictures or graphics--never mind videos or animation or sound clips--on a public communications network, everything slows to a crawl. To make matters worse, there is little agreement on formats for viewing pictures and graphics. Some would argue that this won't be solved until that ubiquitous workhorse of on-line communications--the phone line--is replaced by fiber-optic cable or a two-way cable TV hookup. But several emerging technologies offer more immediate hope.

A class of "portable-document viewer" software, which allows you to view documents as they would appear on a printed page, has gained great popularity in the past year, and some of the products are beginning to migrate to the Internet.

A small Huntington Beach company called Telegrafix Communications is having great success with a program called Ripscrip (for Remote Imaging Protocol Script Language), a simple language for transmitting graphics over a variety of networks.

It already enjoys wide support on electronic bulletin boards, which often serve as on-ramps to the Internet, and businesses are putting it to work.

"Realtors can show houses with it," says Wendy Erdtsieck of Telegrafix. "Imagine sitting in Connecticut, looking at houses in California. Catalogue stores--home shopping--are also using it."

Ripscrip's claim to fame lies in the speed at which it shuttles big graphics files, thanks to a crafty and highly efficient compression scheme. But to use Ripscrip, both the sender and the receiver must have the software.

By contrast, the portable document viewers permit any document to be converted into the format for transmission over networks, and the receiver need only have simple viewing software, which is often free. Adobe System's Acrobat Exchange is perhaps the best known of these, although No Hands Software's Common Ground and Farallon Computing's Replica share most of Acrobat's capabilities.

Last year, the Clinton Administration released its federal budget across the Internet using Acrobat.

Apple Computer is trying to introduce its own standard for portable documents in its latest Macintosh system software.

Hundreds of businesses would welcome any standard at this point. Ideally, insurance claims adjusters would be able to calculate a damage estimate anywhere by browsing through a catalogue of parts located in a central office. And doctors could review surgical procedures from medical libraries on a different continent.

The investment house J.P. Morgan, for example, uses Acrobat on its network to share analyst reports among executives. Were Acrobat to become the Internet standard, for example, it could share those reports electronically--with clients, anywhere in the world--at enormous cost savings. Because those reports contain proprietary, often highly sensitive information, analysts won't transmit them to public or corporate fax machines.

But even Acrobat does not solve the speed problem. That may have to wait until cable TV systems--or a far more advanced type of telephone transmission service--can be used for computer communications. Cable can traffic data 50 times as fast as a phone line, and 60 million U.S. homes already subscribe.

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