[Cybertalk logo] Copyright (c) 1997 by Timothy C. Barmann. This article is intended for personal viewing only and may not be re-distributed in any form. Please e-mail link requests.

December 21, 1997

Get better organized with
a couple of free software gifts

By Timothy C. Barmann

Now that you've emptied your wallet and maxed out your credit cards to buy gifts for everyone else, its time to get something for yourself.

Relax. This isn't about on-line shopping. It's a look at two computer programs that you might find useful. The best part is that any Internet user can download and use them for free.

The first is a program that is perfect for people like me who are "organizationally challenged." I often save files, notes, E-mail and Web pages on my computer, thinking they will be of some use later. Of course, they might be if I could only find them.

Enter Altavista Personal Search 97. It's being given away by Altavista Internet Software, Inc., the Littleton, Mass., subsidiary of Digital Equipment Corp., and the company behind the Altavista Web search site.

The program, which runs only on computers running Windows 95 or NT, lets you search your own computer, much like you can search the Internet. It uses the same technology that Altavista uses to catalog millions of World Wide Web pages.

Searches are performed from your Web browser by opening up a special Web page that is installed on your computer, along with the rest of the software. The page looks nearly identical to the one at Altavista's Web search site.

The computer searches are fast. It was able to find an E-mail message in a 22 megabyte file in just a few seconds.

The program understands more than 200 file formats, including Eudora and Netscape E-mail, Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheet documents, Powerpoint documents and, of course, plain text.

Windows 95 itself does have a search feature, but it's slow. Each time you perform a search, the computer combs through every single document it is told to, looking for the search term.

Altavista's software does it differently. The program first makes a catalog of all the words in your documents and E-mail, and remembers where it found each of those words.

Then, when you perform a search, the program needs only to look at the index it has created to know almost immediately whether the word or phrase you are looking for is found on your PC.

To keep the index accurate, the software lets you schedule it to create a new index every day.

Personal Search 97 is not perfect. In one search, I typed in a person's name and it returned every instance of files where either the first or last name appeared. Using quotation marks seemed to return a more accurate search.

The most disappointing aspect of the software is that when it finds your search term in a Web page that's stored on your computer, clicking on the highlighted entry doesn't load the page into your Web browser as you might expect. Instead, the Web page is loaded into a simple viewer that doesn't understand HTML, the language Web pages are built with. So the document doesn't look anything like it is supposed to.

Also, some of the dates on E-mail messages the program returned during several searches were incorrect. Many messages, the program said, were written in 1970, long before most people had ever heard of E-mail, let alone stored it on personal computers.

And finally, there's no way to find the keyword you were searching for once you call up one of the files Personal Search has found for you.

But shortcomings and all, the program is certainly a worthwhile addition to your computer. You can download the 7.1 megabyte file from http://www.altavista.digital.com/av/content/searchpx.htm. (Altavista says it will take about 30 minutes.)

Another freebie is a program being given away by another well-known company, America Online, is called Instant Messenger.

The program lets you find out whether friends or colleagues are online at the same time you are and it allows you to send instant messages to them and carry on typed conversations.

The beauty of Instant Messenger is that it can be used by anyone with a connection to the Internet to communicate with anyone else on the Internet who also has the software. Neither have to be subscribers of AOL.

(If you are an AOL subscriber, you don't need to download the software. The Instant Messenger is already part of AOL connection software.)

Here's how it works: once you download the software, you pick a screen name and a password and go through a simple registration process. Then you add the screen names of the other people you want to communicate with. That's called a "buddy list."

Once you go online, the software automatically logs you in to a central computer that keeps track of who is online. When someone on your buddy list goes online, you are notified and then you have the option of sending an instant message.

Once the software is loaded and set up, it may take a little while getting used to it. I found it a little jarring to suddenly have an instant message pop up on my screen while working with a word-processing program.

You can have the software tell people trying to contact you that you are away from your computer. And you can log off altogether.

There is the potential for someone to harass you if they know your screen name. Instant Messenger does have a feature to block incoming messages from a particular sender. You can also impose a warning on a particular person. If that person receives several such warnings, he will be temporarily blocked from sending any messages.

I found the software somewhat confusing to set up. But once it was up and running, using it was simple.

There were instances where conversations were cut off because the service suddenly went down.

One missing feature is the ability to include more than one person in a conversation, similar to a conference call. You can have individual sessions going on with different people at the same time.

Instant Messenger has already taken off. AOL says there are more than 15 million users now.

Even more will use the program now that AOL has secured deals to distribute the program with Eudora, the popular E-mail software, and with future versions of Communicator, the Web browser made by Netscape.

Wendy Goldburg, a spokeswoman for AOL, said that giving the software away is one way to spread the America Online brand. It may also be a source of revenue. It is "very possible" the company will begin to sell ads that will be displayed when you pull up your buddy list.

That seems to be a small price to pay for a neat program.

You can download Instant Messenger from AOL's Web site at http://www.aol.com/aim/. You can also get a Netscape-branded version at http://www.newaol.com/aim/netscape/adb00.html.

There are other companies besides AOL that provide instant messaging software and service for free. Among those products are PeopleLink (http://www.peoplelink.com/) and ichat Pager ( http://www.ichat.com/).

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.