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Electronic Reference Works Keep Up With the Times

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An international tragedy created a dilemma last month for the editors of a computerized encyclopedia--one their counterparts at more traditional reference works seldom face.

This fall, the Microsoft Corp. began updating its Encarta 96 CD-ROM encyclopedia monthly and allowing users to keep their copies current by transferring the new information into their computers. That technology has given the publishers of a reference work the ability to respond to events with the speed of a newspaper.

The Nov. 4 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin forced Rod Such, the managing editor of the Encarta Yearbook Builder, to make a difficult decision: How quickly should he respond to the developing situation? Eventually, he decided the event called for an immediate update.

"It really took us about two days to do the research," he said. "We could do these updates on a weekly basis, but we choose to do it monthly because it gives more opportunity to thoroughly research the article. We are a reference work, we're not a newspaper or a newsmagazine."

For owners of Encarta 96 with access to a modem, the updates are available either on the proprietary Microsoft Network or from Microsoft's site on the Internet's World Wide Web.

A special icon on the computer screen alerts users that updates are available. They can then transfer the information through their modems into the their computers' hard drives, where it is immediately accessible.

Mr. Such, a former managing editor for the World Book Encyclopedia's yearbook, said the capability of keeping Encarta so current may eventually change the way the public thinks of encyclopedias.

"I think there is a misconception among a lot of people that the content of an encyclopedia is pretty static and doesn't change," he said. "Here's a case where even the owner of [another] CD-ROM encyclopedia would have to wait a year for their Israel and Middle East articles to be updated."

The very immediacy of the Internet and its massive storehouse of data may, paradoxically, one day spell bad news for Microsoft, if a competitor has his way.

Scott McNealy, the chairman and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Inc., has raised the possibility of using the global computer network as a massive operating system.

That, he argues, would be good news for computer users, including the many educators considering whether to buy Apple Macintosh products or switch to computers that run on Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Computer users who wanted a good word-processing program, for example, could download it from the Internet, use it for as long as they wished, then toss it away.

Sun, based in Mountain View, Calif., develops powerful computer workstations as well as "servers" that store the information that makes up the Internet. The company has recently developed a programming language, called Java, that would allow any kind of software to run on any kind of personal computer, thereby making such connections possible in a limited way.

Some experts have expanded on the concept to argue that, at some point, the price of computers would fall dramatically because machines would no longer need large amounts of memory.

Whatever the outcome of the experiment, Mr. McNealy has made it no secret that one advantage of this approach would be to gain a competitive advantage over Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft.

The convergence of the different forms of electronic communication continues, particularly on the Internet's World Wide Web.

This week, New York City's public-television station was expected to open a Web site loaded with material drawn from its educational programming. WNETstation, as WNET's new site has been dubbed, was scheduled to go on line early this week.

Available on the site will be:

  • Images and descriptive information from the science program "Nature";
  • Interactive music games, a music educators' guide, and an on-line discussion about jazz, all built around the "Marsalis On Music" series featuring trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; and
  • The National Teacher Training Institute, an on-line resource for teachers who want to learn to use television and new media in the classroom.

The new page can be found at http://www.wnet.org.

--Peter West
e-mail: pwest@epe.org

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