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SAVVY COMPUTING – In Search of Answers

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Since the advent of computers more than a half century ago, the Holy Grail has been an intelligent machine that provides just the answers you’re looking for. This quest was dramatized with HAL, the soft-spoken fictional computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The latest effort in this direction is from a company with a flair for names. The company is called GuruNet, and its service is called Answers.com (www.answers.com). A relaunch of a service that formerly bore the company name, Answers.com is a valiant effort and a useful tool, although it inevitably falls short of providing just the answers you’re looking for.

GuruNet, which has offices in Wesley Hills, NY, and Jerusalem, Israel, has been in existence since 2000. Along with improving the service’s depth of information and ease of use, the company is bravely bucking the trend of free to fee. Instead of charging fees and shrinking its user base, it has just changed from a $30/year subscription model to an advertising-support free-service model.

Answers.com bills itself as a one-stop source of information on over a million topics drawn from a database of over 100 reference sources, says GuruNet CEO Bob Rosenschein.

Accessing Answers

You can use the service in one of two ways. You can go to its Web site and type in your search term. Or you can download a free program to use on your PC or Mac, which is called 1-Click Answers; it lets you Alt-click on any word on your screen to direct Answers.com to automatically return a window of relevant information.

The program is smart enough to examine your search terms in context. If you press Alt and click on the word Jordan, for instance, and if the word Michael preceded Jordan on your screen, Answers.com will give you information about the basketball legend rather than the country.

As sources, Answers.com uses dictionaries, thesauruses, specialized glossaries, encyclopedias, atlases, magazines, and other reference works, whose content the company licenses. For revenue, GuruNet now relies entirely on ads, which are not intrusive, with the company betting that enough people will click through them and go to its sponsors’ sites.

Other Alternatives

Answers.com doesn’t compete with search engines such as Google or with reference sites such as RefDesk, which return links that you have to click through to get information.

Google (www.google.com) does a remarkable job of returning relevant Web sites, along with images, online discussion group messages, and news. RefDesk (www.refdesk.com) offers a smorgasbord of reference links, including but not limited to legal information, health facts, government data, obituaries, genealogy, white and yellow pages, news, and weather. Answers.com is closer to an almanac site such as Infoplease or an encyclopedia site such as Britannica Online.

Infoplease (www.infoplease.com) offers almanacs on world and domestic issues, history and government, business, society and culture, biography, health and science, arts and entertainment, and sports, plus a dictionary, concise encyclopedia, and atlas.

Britannica Online (www.britannica.com) includes the complete text of the Encyclopedia Britannica, along with a dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, audio and video clips, and relevant links to other sites. You can read the first few sentences of encyclopedia articles for free, with full access costing $70 per year.

Where Answers.com shines is in providing you with answers quickly, offering the most important information first followed by supporting details. When you learn what you need, you stop.

What Kind of Light Answers.com Sheds on a Subject

Despite its name, Answers.com is not HAL and won’t answer all your questions. If you type in, “What is the temperature on the surface of the sun?” it won’t know what you’re talking about. “We don’t attempt to be a general English-language answerer,” says Rosenschein.

But if you type in or Alt-click on sun, you’ll get dictionary definitions from several sources, a voice that pronounces the word correctly for you, a picture of a cross-section of the sun, idioms in which the word sun is used, entries from two different encyclopedias (both of which include its surface temperature), and internal and external links for more information.

As with an encyclopedia, you shouldn’t expect cutting-edge research or the kind of authority you can cite in a scholarly paper. Answers.com is designed to serve typical Internet users–executives and office workers, students, teachers, professionals, and homemakers–rather than information specialists. It’s for people who are looking for the quickest, most convenient way yet to get basic background information about what they don’t know.

Right now the service is American-centric. But in the future GuruNet plans to make Answers.com more international, both in content and language.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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