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How to do the ftp thing
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

How to do the ftp thing
 

Bit Player for Dec. 29, 1996
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1996, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1996, The Syracuse Newspapers

'Tis the season to be ftping. That mysterious word is pronounced "eff-tee-pee-ing,'' and it's the way you can download the files you're looking for without the pain and suffering of waiting for your Web browser to catch up with the rest of society.

Browsers are great. Don't get me wrong. But modern browsers—the ones from Netscape and Microsoftare the only fully "modern'' ones at the moment—have a big flaw: They take up a lot of memory. (Please don't send letter bombs over this; I realize there are a lot of different browsers, but there are no browsers that can match Netscape's and Microsoft's browsers at this time. Maybe later?)

Those of you with 128 gigabytes of RAM can switch to another channel. The rest of the world needs to sit up and take notice, because the one thing most surfers don't have is a lot of time to wait for their browsers to do something.

That's especially true when you can do the same thing on a meager RAM budget. You do this by using an ftp program instead of your browser when you want to download some files. (I'll admit that using a browser for ftp is a no-brainer, but how much time do you want to waste waiting for your browser to do a file transfer when you could do it by a real ftp program?)

I've written about ftp applications before. But I can see from the e-mail I get that most readers don't know about (or haven't looked into) the benefits of doing file downloads by ftp. The word stands for "file transfer protocol'' and represents the standard way files have been sent back and forth on the Internet for years.

When the Web was invented, a new file-transfer method came along for the ride, and it has replaced ftp for all the items that make up Web pages. (That new method is http—hypertext transport protocol—and it, like just about everything born of the Unix operating systems, is always written in lower case. As background, I'll explain that Unix systems generally consider the case of a name—the use of small letters like this or CAPITAL ONES LIKE THIS—to be very important. ThisName is not the same as Thisname to these Unix systems. So if you are specifying a pathname and filename in a Unix environment, be sure to type the exact names, case differences and all.)

But I'll bet you usually don't think of the items on Web pages as being part of your downloads. They just appear-sometimes quickly (as they usually should from my own Web site, which was designed for quick access) and sometimes very slowly (as they will from hundreds of thousands of sites created by narcissists and general all-around airheads). That's how the http method is supposed to work, without any intervention by the user.

But when you choose a file that you want to download from a Web page, it's usually delivered to your system by ftp. Browsers speak the ftp language as well as they talk http, and they send out the appropriate ftp commands to the remote system and grab the file.

Neat, huh? No, it's not-so-neat.

Problem No. 1 is that browsers do only one ftp transfer at a time. (I'm not referring to the fact that you can initiate a second ftp transfer while the first one is going on-something I'll get back to next week. Rather, I mean browsers can't do batch transfers, in which you download scores of files in one operation.) Any modern ftp program can do multiple transfers.

Problem No. 2 is that browsers are best doing http work-grabbing pieces of Web pages for you. Doing ftp from a browser just slows things down.

So that's why you should add a good ftp application to your collection of Net tools. At this point I need to explain something that old-timers on the Internet already know. There are ftp programs and there are ftp programs. The old ones are dumb, stupid, ridiculous and fast. (Oddly, Windows 95 comes with just such an old, stupid and ridiculous ftp program. I'll bet that only one Windows 95 user out of 10,000 knows that it is there.) The newest ones are smart, easy to use, well designed and just as fast. You tell me which kind makes sense.

The old ones work by commands. You type the commands into a window, just like using the dreaded old DOS. (Or, to put the blame where it belongs, just like using the horrible old Unix.) The newest ones work with icons, folders and menus. You drag here and drop there. Doesn't that sound like what you'd rather do?

Visit my Web site for more on ftp applications for PCs and Macs. I have links to my choices of the best modern ftp programs.


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