Last week in this column I got all excited about a new text-retrieval program called "WordCruncher." I like this package partly because it is great at its job -- digging through a ton of text to find the word or phrase you're hunting.
More important, I see WordCruncher as a harbinger of a major new wave of software that is going to be one of the key personal computer trends of 1988.
This year, the personal computer industry is going to get serious about manipulating words and ideas.
Many people have thought of computers strictly as "number crunchers" -- and in the PC world, there's some basis for this. The best-selling and most powerful kinds of software are the number-crunching programs, symbolized by such megahit spreadsheets as Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel.
In fact, though, the most common use for personal computers is word-processing; that is, more individual computer owners use their machines primarily for textual work than for numbers. Recognizing this, software publishers are gearing up for a major push at people who need to crunch text more than numbers.
I'm not talking about a new onslaught of word-processing programs. There are dozens on the market already, and it's hard to see anybody out there who's going to compete with the giants of the field, such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.
There will likely be a rush of new programs designed for "specialized" word processing -- for example, programs designed specifically for word processing in a doctor's office, a synagogue or a nuclear physics lab.
Mainly, though, the emphasis on text-crunching is going to bring new programs that can search, sort, organize and extract textual files in beneficial ways.
Consider, for example, a new program from a company called JURISoft (do you get the feeling that the Caps Lock key must have been malfunctioning when a lot of these software companies named themselves?). JURISoft (617-864-6151) makes software for lawyers. The company has just finished a new offering called "FullAuthority."
I haven't tried the program yet, but JURISoft says it will scan through a brief or motion and automatically generate the Table of Authorities -- a sort of detailed bibliography -- required in such documents.
That is, the program can find and extract the information needed and stick the completed table at the end, where it belongs. This is "text crunching" in a most helpful form.
You may already have heard about the fascinating new information manager from Apple Computer called Hypercard, which now comes free with every Macintosh. Hypercard is a text-crunching program that sorts, retrieves and manipulates information -- and can work with graphics and sound as well as text. Hypercard has become a sort of role model for many other programs that are designed to help people extract ideas and patterns from blocks of information.
The upcoming "information management" program from Lotus called Agenda is an example. Agenda ($395) should hit the market in a month or so.
Among other things, it helps keep track of stray ideas and notes you may have considered important way back when. Agenda is designed to search through all sorts of notes, letters, files and miscellaneous keyboard jottings to find a particular fact, thought or chain of ideas.
If you've been using your computer for serious word-processing, or if you receive text files from data bases or from the headquarters computer, the chances are strong your hard disk has more than 1 million words of text on it.
How do you find a single word in that huge aggregation? That is, if you needed to find the single text file that has the phrase "1988 plans" on it, could you do so without reading through every text file on your hard disk? You could. WordCruncher can do that kind of linguistic needle-in-a-haystack job in the blink of an eye.
Another indexing program, ZyIndex, can do just about the same thing. But both of those programs are in the $300 range, and both require that you index all your text files (a slow process) before you search for a word or phrase in them.
On the other hand, there's a $60 program called GOfer (Microlytics, 716-248-9150) that will search though every file on your disk and find a specified word or phrase -- even if you haven't had the foresight to run an indexing program on your text files in advance.
GOfer works quite well, although it is a little more complicated to use than it needs to be. It's slower and less versatile than WordCruncher and other major-league searching programs, but GOfer is adequate. When you need this kind of help -- that is, when you have five minutes to come up with that letter you wrote sometime last year that mentions "1988 plans" -- GOfer can do the job.
The advent of larger hard disks and CD-ROM disks opens up another dimension of text management: the ability to read, extract from, manipulate and search through huge quantities of written information.
Products like Microsoft's Bookshelf ($395) -- which puts a dictionary, a thesaurus, a world almanac, a zip code directory and several other reference works on a single compact disk -- and the CD-ROM edition of Grolier's Encyclopedia ($300, from Grolier, 203-797-3530) turn your personal computer into a complete reference library, with the machine acting as a kindly librarian that can find any citation in seconds.
We'll be taking a closer look at some of these CD-ROM libraries in a few weeks. In the meantime, happy word crunching.