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This tutorial paper begins with an elementary presentation of the fundamental properties and structure of convolutional codes and proceeds with the development of the maximum likelihood decoder. The powerful tool of generating function analysis is demonstrated to yield for arbitrary codes both the distance properties and upper bounds on the bit error probability for communication over any memoryless channel. Previous results on code ensemble average error probabilities are also derived and extended by these techniques. Finally, practical considerations concerning finite decoding memory, metric representation, and synchronization are discussed.