Online services sort out alphabet soup of files


POSTED: Sunday, May 03, 2009

Few things define Digital Slobs better than our work ethic—about delegating.

Why put off to tomorrow something you could have a colleague, machine or recently industrialized city in India do for you today?

Remember when Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into thinking whitewashing a fence was actually a fun thing to do? With all due respect to Mark Twain, there should've been a whole book devoted to just that.

But what passed for literary shenanigans in 1876 is now standard Digital Age operating procedure. We now routinely dupe unsuspecting computers into doing all of our mundane processing, especially all that converting of documents from one file format to another.

Up until about 50 years ago, an entire carbon life form-based transcribing industry was devoted to turning handwritten or voice-spoken this into manually typewritten or tabulated that, with human fingers powering and human eyes witnessing the creation of each alphanumeric symbol.

But now, as anyone who's ever tried to transfer reams of data from a PDF file onto a Microsoft Word document knows, the scenic route is for suckers.

The bygone era had its upside, however. Its almost universal format (8 1/2-by-11-inch paper) meant that if you sent a document, all anyone needed to read it was a letter opener and an opposable thumb (or an executive assistant with these things featured prominently on their resume).

Compare that with our chaotic Information Superhighway, filled with an alphabet soup of computer file formats (not to mention a haphazard global mishmash of outmoded software and hardware) that strands thousands on the side of the road every day with nothing more than dumb looks and error messages. And often, the rest of us are too afraid to even slow down and help.

There are few things sadder than watching an office cog pine, “;Can anybody convert a DOCX file to a PDF?”; to a room of empty, vacant, soulless stares.

I'M AS GUILTY as anyone. While I usually try to help fallen comrades convert their files, if I see extensions like .pcx, .mdb, .odt, .wbmp or .ogg, chances are good I'll just write an “;X”; on their foreheads and administer enough morphine to make them comfortable.

Thankfully, there are several Web-based file-conversion saviors that at least half of us should know about so we can tell everyone else.

The three examples below are simple services that serve a single overarching purpose: converting almost any file you can't open into some kind of file that you can.

They all work right off your browser, allowing you to wait for immediate download and/or almost immediate transfers to the e-mail address of your choice.

Cometdocs.com: This site features a super-easy, friendly user interface that can convert files in 50 variations. It can even tell you what kind of file you're dealing with if you have no idea. It also converts scanned TIFF and PDF documents and can extract readable text from the latter.

Zamzar.com: This site also boasts a friendly interface (less so if you have an aversion to lizards). Using its free service, you can convert documents up to 100 MB in size, which can be a bit limiting if you want to reformat video. For that, you might want to sign up for its tiered pay services, from $7 to $49 per month, that allow you to work on files up to 1 GB.

Media-convert.com: This free site can convert files up to 200 MB, and features the most specific tools for converting video. You can resize movies, change their frame rate, merge multiple video files and even split a large file into several uniformly sized chunks.


Follow columnist Curt Brandao's Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/digitalslob.