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The optimal data compression problem is posed in terms of an alphabet constraint rather than an entropy constraint. Solving the optimal alphabet-constrained data compression problem yields explicit source encoder/decoder designs, which is in sharp contrast to other approaches. The alphabet-constrained approach is shown to have the additional advantages that (1) classical waveform encoding schemes, such as pulse code modulation (PCM), differential pulse code modulation (DPCM), and delta modulation (DM), as well as rate distortion theory motivated tree/trellis coders fit within this theory; (2) the concept of preposterior analysis in data compression is introduced, yielding a rich. new class of coders: and (3) it provides a conceptual framework for the design of joint source/channel coders for noisy channel applications. Examples are presented of single-path differential encoding, delayed (or tree) encoding, preposterior analysis, and source coding over noisy channels.