Clicks of the trade

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Roger Frost offers a guide to 'hybrid' CD-Roms that link up to the Internet

When you're exploring a CD-Rom, it's easy be overwhelmed with information and still want more. Maybe you want more detail or something up to date, or even need to ask a question. Now, using some straightforward tricks built into computer software, you can click your way directly from your CD-Rom on to the Internet, and start to find what you want.

Dorling Kindersley's Virtual Reality Dinosaur Hunter is part of this next generation of CD-Rom titles. Not only can fans of scary mouths with pointy teeth look up facts on the disc, they can also find out more from the Internet.

They click on something marked "Dino on-line" and are taken to an exclusive area on the World Wide Web (as long as they have a modem, that is) with extra information about dinosaurs and a different, magazine-style angle on the subject. In particular, they'll find stories about new excavations and dinosaur gossip, and a place to ask dinosaur experts questions.

It needs a modem and a computer set-up to connect to any Internet service - a not unreasonable feature to expect on a library or home machine but one that is only just establishing itself in schools. It also needs a copy of the CD-Rom which holds the password to the Dino Online Internet area.

This approach to software, known as "hybrid" CD-Rom, extends the idea of a solid body of knowledge. It's a clear signal that CD-Rom has finally outgrown its shiny self, but it's not the first and only.

Encyclopedias have always needed constant revision, so when Microsoft's Encarta 96 CD-Rom encyclopedia arrived a year back it allowed you to pick up a monthly update over the Internet. The new Encarta 97, due in October, will also do this, while its sibling, Encarta 97 World Atlas, a humanities title, will feature 7,000 links to places on the Internet so that you can indeed go world exploring.

The idea is so obviously useful it is catching. Hutchinson's Multimedia Encyclopaedia for 97 will have hundreds of Internet links. It's two years since Dorling Kindersley brought out its first CD-Rom titles. These have moved on so far that Dinosaur Hunter, instead of looking like a book on-screen. allows you to wander along dungeon-like corridors examining bones, excavations and often walking round things in a virtual museum.

Dorling Kindersley has also upgraded its original benchmark titles, such as The Ultimate Human Body and The Way Things Work, adding new sections as well as that on-line feature. In version two of TWTW, author and artist David McCauley (quite a star in the States) gives you a kick-start by taking you on a tour of his disc, and a charming fellow he turns out to be. You'll be tempted to click your way on-line and explore Mammoth.Net - named after the creature who stars in his cartoons explaining how things work. On the Net you can find details of new machines, send the author what they call M-mail, and respond to some unanswered questions - which is a fine idea. There are also things like McCauley's original sketches, a bank of his letters and replies, and a shop where you can pick up computer things like aeroplane sounds, screen-savers and picture postcards that on today's colour printers come out in souvenir-shop quality. There's a mammoth classroom too - but even in September it was still closed.

While the Body is largely about anatomy and function, a click takes you to Body Online, which deals more with keeping healthy and new discoveries. Again it's like a magazine, with articles about stopping smoking, dealing with bee-stings, resuscitation and sleeping.

Overall, it's as extraordinarily attractive as DK material usually is - except that Mic Cady, who manages this on-line publishing, says it's harder to maintain that DK look on the Internet. "You've got people using different software on different machines, and they have different settings for fonts and colours and so on." He says that it is a matter of achieving a design compromise, though visitors to the site should find the unmistakable corporate identity fairly intact.

But all this costs the publishers money. For example, Mic Cady's team has writers, editors, designers, programmers and technical support who don't come for free. So, not surprisingly, this Internet add-on is marked up as a free trial subscription or "one year's worth of updates". Anglia Multimedia, producer of the award-winning Nelson and his Navy, seems to be offering an open-ender, and its spot on the net not only has extra material, but also handy teacher support.

Businesses are establishing themselves on the Internet at the rate of 150 each day. What this means is that if you need to find out about a piece of software and what it covers, you can often get to this information very efficiently. Some computer pundits are saying that we've got so used to getting information on the Internet for free that the future Internet will pay its way using advertising.

To see why an ordinary phone call can't deliver the same information as an Internet connection, take a visit to the new Living Books site. Here the publishers of the definitive young kids story books, but late starters on the Internet, show their catalogue, invite feedback and offer ideas to teachers and parents. And as a taster of some clever streaming technology to allow for the slow speed of the Internet, you can explore a page of the Living Books Arthur's Birthday title, and even interact with it as it transfers. Added to this, there are free demos to load and play at leisure as well as a feast of really sweet animation for kids. Mind you, if you just wanted to know the price, maybe a phone call is quicker.

Over the coming months, there will be more to look out for. Microsoft Publisher 97 is an easy-to-use desktop publishing tool will have a hand-holding wizard to help people put pages on the Internet. If that's not simple enough, novices can use Creative Writer 2, the kids' word processor, to do the same. Microsoft's Office 97, the promised all-embracing office package will be so tied up with the Internet, that you might even need to keep an eye on it. With Xmas coming, Microsoft's new home title, Picture It, a computer family photo album, lets you to send your snaps to friends using electronic mail.

Teachers were asking for these kinds of features 10 or more years ago, but the technology made some promises, mumbled something and then disappeared. Now its back, smiling, and looking more helpful. Hey ho, I think we're moving.

* INTERNET ADDRESSES: Living Books: www.livingbooks.com. Microsoft:www.microsoft.com. Dorling Kindersley: www.dk.com. Anglia Multimedia: www.anglia.co.uk. Hutchinson's: www.attica.co.uk.

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