Easy to use, but is it useful?

11th December 1998 at 00:00
THE STRUGGLE FOR PEACE. CD-Rom for PC. Pounds 34.99 plus VAT. The Television Centre. Kirkstall Road. Leeds LS3 1JS.

A review of the 20th century up to the end of the Second Word War, The Struggle for Peace seems full of promise for students of the period. There are dozens of archive pictures and video clips to match an equal number of linked text boxes; an extensive range of relevant topics, in chronological or alphabetical order; and questions that test users' judgment as to the merits of particular policy decisions at times of crisis. From a distance, it is a package to savour.

Closer inspection, however, brings misgivings, though not about the interface. Navigation between topics and the application's five time bands is simple enough, and students will have no problems using a Trail Save that allows information to be selected and saved.

The problems rest almost exclusively with the content. Not only are the main articles (with titles such as "Chamberlain resigns" or "Hitler invades Czechoslovakia") set in the no-man's land between GCSE and A-level, they are often eccentrically glossed (absurdly so in the case of "Nazi", when the party is implicitly endowed with socialist aims). True, some subjects, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, for example, are described accurately and at some length, but others merit only the merest coverage.

Nor are the visuals any real compensation. If most of the maps are clear and colourful, too many of the pictures are quite unsuitable or badly captioned: not a tank in sight in one labelled "Tanks were only partly successful in the Battle of the Somme"; another that uses a hopelessly romanticised painting to depict the sinking of the Lusitania; yet another, this time captioned "The German navy", of a bunch of lads who look more dressed for deck-swabbing than for world domination.

And this is without totting up the number of times a different caption has been stuck on a picture that has already been used.

All told, it looks like a case of software designers giving more thought to ease of use than to actual usefulness. Prospective buyers should think hard about this sense of priorities.

Laurence Alster is a lecturer at South Downs College, Portsmouth

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