Learn This: File Extensions and the Generation Gap

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Abraham WhaleyPeople of my generation (the author is in the late afternoon of his twenties) don’t get it.  What we don’t get is how relatively new and modern personal computing technology is.  We don’t realize that we were one of the first generations to have computers in our classrooms when we started kindergarten, one of the first to have internet access in our libraries, and one of the first to have networked computer interaction as a fundamental part of our lives from a young age.  We don’t understand why other generations don’t find computing as intuitive as we do.

Learning to use computers effectively is a process of repetition, immersion, and is ideally started early in life, just like learning a new language.  I think there is both a challenge and an opportunity – for all generations – in the generational computing gap.  The younger folks who can find ways to tailor their products and services towards usability, approachability and friendliness can often make big strides in taking new technologies mainstream.  Boomers and older have tremendous opportunities to separate themselves from their peers and their competitors by balancing a willingness to be open minded about embracing technology with a keen eye towards results.

In this spirit I would like to talk about a basic computing concept: file extensions.  First, what is a computer file?

A file is a block of information which can be used in conjunction with a computer program.  A file is durable in the sense that it remains available for programs to use after the current program has finished.  Computer files are the modern counterpart of paper documents which traditionally were kept in office files, which is the source of the term.

Every word processing document, spreadsheet, Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, MP3, and video on your computer is housed in its own “file”.  A program can use these files to achieve results, such as reading or editing a word processing document, using a spreadsheet to record and predict figures, showing a presentation at a meeting or conference, or to play a song or movie.

Each of these files has a name, and that file name usually has two parts. The actual name of the file, and then, after a period, or dot, a file extension.

For example, if you open your Microsoft Windows Notepad program in the acessories section of the start menu, click on the “File” menu, and then click “Save”, you’ll will be prompted to enter a name for the file, which is called “Untitled” until you name it. But you can also see that the file will be saved with the extension “.txt”.  If you choose to name the file “agenda”, the official name of the file will be “agenda.txt”.  In newer operating systems, you rarely actually see the file extension on the screen.  In Windows XP and Vista, you will see the file represented simply as “agenda” with a small icon next to it that looks like a sheet of paper from a small notepad – the symbol for the “Microsoft Notepad” program.

File extensions are less visible these days, but knowing how to interpret them can still pay big dividends.  The file extension serves to give the computer and its operating system a sense of how to handle the file.  By putting “.txt” after “agenda” in our Notepad document, we are notifying the computer what we intend to use the file for, which programs we want to use it with, and in general, what to expect when that file is opened. It’s no different than labeling a physical file in a physical filing cabinet. If all your invoices are in red files, you don’t have to look through the blue ones when searching for one.

File extensions are helpful in the same way to the user.  When we are emailed a file, or trying to download one, the file name and the file extension are important clues as to what the file contains. If my CPA emails me a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file, I’ll know to look for the “.xls” extension.  If my lawyer sends me a contract, it very likely will come with the extension “.doc” for a Microsoft Word Document.  On the other hand, if someone says they are sending me a picture of a waterfall, and the program has a strange extension for an image, like “.dll” or “.exe”, than I know I’m going to want to be sure this is something I can trust. From here, the only thing to really learn is what the different file extensions are.

Common Microsoft Office / Document files

File ExtensionDescriptionAssociated ProgramWhat is it?
.docDocument file with text formatting, often used with software’s “doc”umentation.Microsoft Word, Microsoft WordpadText file with formatted text.
.docxMicrosoft Office 2007 OpenOffice format (without macro extensions)Microsoft Word 2007Microsoft Word 2007 (standard)
.docmMicrosoft Office 2007 OpenOffice format (with macro extensions)Microsoft Word 2007Microsoft Word 2007 (with macro extensions)
.pdfAdobe “Portable Document Format”Adobe Reader (to view), Adobe Acrobat (to create and edit)A rich text file with extensive formatting. Often used to scan in complicated forms, or create portable, polished documents
.pptMicrosoft Powerpoint Standalone SlideshowNone- the program can be run by itself, so you don’t need to have Powerpoint on the computer you’re presenting onMicrosoft Powerpoint Presentation
.pptxMicrosot Powerpoint 2007 OpenOffice ExtensionMicrosoft Powerpoint 2007Microsoft Powerpoint Presentation
.ppsMicrosoft Powerpoint SlideshowMicrosoft PowerpointMicrosoft Powerpoint Presentation
.xlsMicrosoft Excel SpreadsheetMicrosoft ExcelSpreadsheet
.xlsxMicrosoft Excel 2007 OpenOffice SpreadsheetMicrosoft Excel 2007Spreadsheet

Common Multimedia Files

File ExtensionFile ExtensionAssociated ProgramWhat is it?
.asf“Advanced Streaming Format” – compressed Windows audio/visual fileWindows Media PlayerAn audio or video streamed online
.avi“Audio/Video Interleaved” animation fileWindows Media Player, most any video playing softwareVideo file
.gif“Graphics Interchange Format”Web Browser, or photo editing / viewing softwarePicture File
.jpeg
“Joint Photography Experts Group” image formatWeb Browser, or photo editing / viewing softwarePicture File
.jpg“Joint Photography Experts Group” image formatWeb Browser, or photo editing/ viewing softwarePicture File
.movApple Quicktime Movie FileApple Quicktime, other available video softwareVideo File
.mpeg
“Moving Picture Experts Group” video formatWindows Media Player, most any video playing softwareVideo File
,mpg
“Moving Picture Experts Group video formatWindows Media Player, most any video playing softwareVideo File

Other Common File Types

File ExtensionDescriptionAssociated ProgramWhat is it?
.exeAn EXEcutable program file. When opened, this file launches a program. Be careful! Most all programs will start with an .exe, good or badNone, it is the programA piece of software
.faqA “Frequently Asked Questions” text file, often bundled with software to answer common questionsAny text editorSomething good to read before you get started
.rar“Roshal Archive” compression fileWinRarA “compressed” file is a large file made smaller to send over a network. The files are compressed and decompressed in a separate program (WinRar)
.txtBasic text fileAny text editorThe most simple form of word processing document
.zipZIP “compression file”PKUnzip, many other available decompression programsA “compressed” file is a large file made smaller to send over a network. The files are compressed and decompressed in a separate program


Posted in: Learn This: Technology Answers

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  1. Ed King May 7, 2009

    Ah, you young kiddies are always forgetting something – like those Office 2007 extensions which will VERY likely show up more now without (often) the sender even realizing it. So it’s not an XLS file in many cases but XLSX!

    You’re ‘spot on’ (an old phrase from somewhere) about Boomers setting themselves apart from their peers by embracing technology. It is essential, though, to know when and where to flaunt^H^H^H^H^H use it.

    Ed King, FACMPE
    (One of the first Boomers! – DAMN!!!)