If you download many programs and files off the Internet, you've probably encountered ZIP files before. This compression system is a very handy invention, especially for Web users, because it lets you reduce the overall number of bits and bytes in a file so it can be transmitted faster over slower Internet connections, or take up less space on a disk. Once you download the file, your computer uses a program such as WinZip or Stuffit to expand the file back to its original size. If everything works correctly, the expanded file is identical to the original file before it was compressed.
At first glance, this seems very mysterious. How can you reduce the number of bits and bytes and then add those exact bits and bytes back later? As it turns out, the basic idea behind the process is fairly straightforward. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll examine this simple method as we take a very small file through the basic process of compression.