www.usatoday.com, June 3, 2003
Information springs from your fingertips
| IwantanswersandIwantthemnow.Iaminsucharush thatIdon'tpausebetweenwords.
|Whew. I'm out of breath. Have I convinced you that I'm really busy? I'm sure you are, too. That's why you may be as impressed as I was by a couple of clever and inexpensive software tools, GuruNet and ActiveWords, that effectively provide shortcuts to the programs — and more important, the information — you need to access thisfast.
GuruNet from Atomica is the more interesting of the two. The addictive reference program complements and builds on the capabilities of the powerful Google search engine by transforming any word on your screen, whether on a Web page, in a document or even in a photo-sharing application, into searchable "hypertext." In doing so, Atomica largely delivers on its stated goal: to present the definition, biography, listing or fact immediately.
Best of all, there's no learning curve: You merely position the cursor over a word and click the mouse at the same time you press the "alt" key. Up pops a GuruNet window with timely and succinct reference material culled from a gaggle of sources — Houghton-Mifflin's American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, Columbia Press Encyclopedias, AccuWeather, Investopedia and Acronym Finder among them.
Alt-click on a name like Sony and you'll be presented a brief description of the company, stock price and chart, and (via Amazon) a list of branded products you might buy. Alt-click on Devils and you can peek at the hockey team's schedule, roster, stats, etc.
The pop-up material is organized into tabbed sections. Depending on the word, you might get a dictionary definition (with pronunciation), quotations, stock quotes, news, pictures, maps, etc. Google itself is at hand for mining sites that go into meatier detail.
The many meanings of SARS
At USATODAY.com I alt-clicked on SARS. The window displayed a definition of the virus that causes the disease. Under Acronyms, I found SARS stood not only for severe acute respiratory syndrome but also for "segmentation and reassembly sublayer" (whatever that is) and South African Revenue Service. The Health tab took me to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page. If I chose Images, I was at a Google page of SARS-related pictures, though some, such as a slide mentioning the Saskatchewan Administrative Records System, were not what I had in mind.
Most of the time, GuruNet has the smarts to put its 631,000-plus topics into the proper context. The program looks at letter casing (Apple, apple) and neighboring words to determine likely matches; there's no need to highlight and click on multiple words. So when I alt-clicked on Hillary in a story about Mount Everest, the program deduced that I was interested in mountain climber Sir Edmund and not the former first lady and current senator. The word "Hope" in a headline about Bob's 100th birthday brought up a brief bio, links to a filmography, plus photos and news.
But GuruNet did miss at times. When I alt-clicked Hope in the body of that article, the first item to pop up was about Bill Clinton's Arkansas hometown.
Similarly, when I alt-clicked Bruce next to the word Almighty, what came up were not references to the Jim Carrey flick, but rather an encyclopedia entry on the Scottish royal family descended from 11th-century Norman duke Robert de Brus. Fortunately, you can click on a "did you mean" tab for other possibilities (Lenny Bruce, Isaac Bruce, etc.). But in this instance, I had to manually type in "Bruce Almighty" before a Yahoo movie page materialized.
Apart from word-clicking, GuruNet offers a handy library inside a windowpane on the left side of the screen, with chunks of information on myriad subjects: the Bible, cat breeds, court cases and a wine glossary, to name a handful. You also can translate the content from these sources into a dozen languages.
Minimizing the mouse
While GuruNet is built around the art of the click, ActiveWords is all about eschewing the mouse. The idea is to create a series of customizable keystrokes or shortcuts to launch programs, transport you to Web addresses or initiate some other computing action.
You might type "xl" to bring up the Excel spreadsheet, "calc" to launch the calculator or "nem" to prepare a new e-mail. You can even dedicate a single letter, like "q" for starting up Quicken. And you can use ActiveWords to automatically type in a longer string of characters; I use "ecb" to spell out Edward C. Baig.
You can add new ActiveWords or keep track of those you've created through a small on-screen monitor bar. The program also can automatically suggest new ActiveWords, based on how you use your PC.
Among my choices: "espn" to get to ESPN.com, "word" for Microsoft Word, "stories" to access a Web archive of this column and "count" to tally the number of words in a document.
But what if I want to type "stories" or "count" inside a document without launching a task? Most often, you'll set up ActiveWords so the shortcuts don't act until you trigger them through a mechanism such as pressing the spacebar twice or hitting a function key at the top of your keyboard. But if you know you wouldn't use specific ActiveWords in any other context — perhaps designating "moa" to type out your office address — you can avoid such a trigger.
To PC vets, ActiveWords may seem like a throwback to DOS text commands or the keystroke shortcuts known as macros. ActiveWords execs prefer a modern spin: They call it a "semantic user interface."
Whatever the name, the ActiveWords system seems to work reliably, though it takes getting used to and it won't appeal to all. For example, I kept instinctively reaching for the mouse to launch Word.