When I sat down recently to test drive a new version of the Home Improvement Encyclopedia CD-ROM, a curious thing happened. A ringing doorbell and a screen announcing the program were ordinary enough. Then, the Netscape Navigator Web browser fired up automatically, and I was looking at the Home Improvement Encyclopedia home page. It felt like the World Wide Web, though I was actually looking at a file on the CD-ROM.
At first, I thought using a Web browser to run a digital reference work might be a gimmick to cash in on the Internet craze. But it turns out to be more useful in a couple of respects than the less familiar and more limited navigating screens that vary from program to program. The browser approach is also an indication of where both business and consumer software are going.
TRAIL MARKERS. I am convinced that a major reason for the phenomenal popularity of the World Wide Web is how easy Navigator and other browsers make it to get around. Finding what I want on the anarchic Web may be difficult. But once I've found a site, such features as the clickable forward and back buttons let me follow links easily. And adding a site to my list of favorites with a click gives me the electronic equivalent of a trail of breadcrumbs to follow when I want to return.
The browser is particularly good for a reference work such as this clear and informative guide to home repairs and improvements. Finding help often requires jumping from place to place. And when using a book, I tend to run out of fingers marking places. Publishers of CD-ROM references long ago came up with electronic bookmarks. But nothing matches the ease of a browser, which lets you get a list of pages you've visited and click on one to get there.
The encyclopedia also allows you to move freely between material on the CD and the Web. Nearly every page includes links to Web sites appropriate to the topic. If you have an Internet service, you can automatically switch between pages on disk and pages on the Net. (You can see a sample at http://www.btw.com.)
Web browsers are also extremely versatile. The $35 price tag for Home Improvement Encyclopedia 3.0 by Books that Work (800-242-4546) includes a copy of Netscape Navigator 2.0, which you can use just to cruise the Net. The "plug-in" design used in this Navigator (and to be copied by Microsoft Corp. in the upcoming Internet Explorer 3.0) also allows you to add features. The Home Improvement Encyclopedia, for example, uses Macromedia's ShockWave plug-in to add animation to its pages. Too often, the "multimedia" features added to computerized reference offerings are little more than distractions. Not here. An animated sequence showing how to relight the pilot on a hot-water heater, for example, adds real value.
BROWSER WORLD. Developers of software for both business and the home market are looking to the browser as a sort of universal interface for programs. In business, where high-quality Internet connections are common, programmers are enhancing browsers with E-mail, access to corporate databases and forms, and other features. Home Improvement Encyclopedia illustrates how well the approach can work with consumer products, too.
The browser-ization of computing will likely pick up steam late this year, when Microsoft releases an upgrade to Windows 95 and NT that has browser features built right into the desktop. And both Microsoft and Netscape Communications are testing browsers that improve on already good navigation tools.
There's a danger that as programmers load more and more into browsers, they'll lose the simplicity of use that makes them so attractive. But chances are good that finding your way around both your programs and the Web is going to get easier.