Now that we've become accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to information, the idea of having to walk across the room for a book or even reach across the desk for a CD-ROM seems almost cumbersome.
One option is to subscribe to one of the online encyclopedias such as Encarta, Britannica or Grolier. There are even some limited free online reference sources, including dictionary.com, encyclopedia.com and an abridged version of Encarta. Also, check with your local library or nearby libraries to see what databases they offer. My local county library (Santa Clara County, California) offers its patrons free home access to the online edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which would otherwise cost $59.95 a year
All of these services are pretty easy to use, but if you're a Windows user looking for the ultimate in convenience, check out GuruNet, from Atomica Corporation.
The software, which you can download from the company's Web site, provides access to dictionaries, encyclopedias and many other reference sources. Best of all, the service is incredibly easy to use. You can use the full free trial version for 14 days. After that the program will continue to function as a dictionary and thesaurus, but if you want all of its reference tools, you'll need to pay $39.99.
The program isn't new. It came out a couple of years ago as a more limited free program, but Atomica, which is based in Israel, has significantly expanded it.
Unlike a Web site, GuruNet has its own small program (1.3 megabytes) that's a pretty fast download even if you have a dial-up connection. But unlike software that you buy on CD or DVD, GuruNet only works while you're connected to the Internet, which makes it a very compelling program for anyone with a persistent broadband connection such as DSL or a cable modem.
There are three ways to look something up. When GuruNet is running there is a very small icon on the right of your screen. If you click on it, it brings up a small box where you type in a word or a query. The program then goes out over the Internet to GuruNet's database and quickly brings up the answers.
But you don't have to go out of your way to access GuruNet's program. If you're using a word processing program, a Web browser, an e-mail program or any other piece of software that displays text, you can simply place your cursor on a word and click the mouse while holding down the Alt key.
The third way to access the program is to bring up the full application and browse through its many topic areas such as Legal, People, Government, Medical, Sports and Places. I recently needed to find out the international dialing code for Japan, which was easy to find from the Places menu.
The information that pops up could be from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Simpson's Contemporary Quotations, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law or one of 100 reference sources. You might get only text, but you might also get photographs, maps or drawings. With most words there is also a pronunciation icon that speaks the word out loud.
In addition to the data sources provided by software, the program also brings Web links that were either added by the company's editors and reference sources or supplied by Google and other Web information resources.
If you look up "Al Gore," for example, you'll get his biography as well as links to more information about the former U.S. vice president from The Washington Post, Encyclopedia Americana and Yahoo. Like most people on the globe, consumer activist Harvey Rosenfield is not included in GuruNet's database, but the program will automatically bring up listings about him from Google, AltaVista and other Web search engines.
Because of its built-in database and automatic connections to leading search engines, GuruNet is truly a one-stop information tool. Type in "Bill Gates," for example, and you not only get his bio from GuruNet links to material about him on search engines, you also have the option to read news about him from Google News or shop for books by or about him at Amazon.com.
Bottom line: GuruNet is an elegantly crafted program that takes advantage of the power of the Internet to provide information when and where it is needed.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid