There's a boom in specialized on-line services.
What's that mean? In essence, an on-line service is a phone number you can call from your computer, using a modem. A message appears on the screen, saying "Welcome to the Compu-Talk Service," or some such. Then you have available all manner of information, conversation, electronic shopping and free software.
The "generalized" on-line services, like CompuServe and Prodigy, are engaged in broadcasting -- appealing to the broadest possible range of interests with an expansive menu of categories.
But the up-and-coming wave in this electronic sea is the "specialized on-line service," which tries to fill one need extremely well. Such outfits target specific groups -- doctors, lawyers, teachers or some other niche. .
This segment of the on-line business will be growing. The decision by International Business Machines Corp. to include a free built-in modem with each of its new PS1 computers will probably force other sellers of home computers to do the same. That means tens of millions of new potential customers for dial-up services.
I'd be willing to bet that a lot of those home computers will be dialing "USA Today Sports Center," the ESPN of computer communications. This is a well-designed, easy-to-use service that is chock-a-block with news, stats and trivia on all sorts of sports. The Sports Center runs its own rotisserie baseball, football and basketball leagues, so you can become an on-line coach or general manager.
On Sports Center, you can also play chess or backgammon, converse with other sports freaks, or read general news headlines. But why waste on-line charges for that stuff? The strength of this service is sports news.
You can get at sports news two ways. First, there is a fast, intuitive menu system. Even better is the "News Ticker" that sends information, Times Square style, across the bottom of your screen.
Sports Center lets you set up a personalized clipping service. You tell the system which pro and college sports teams you care about and the ticker will display all current news on your choices whenever you dial in. If your only interest is the Princeton women's basketball team, the ticker won't be very helpful. Ask about every major league team east of Chicago, and you'll have a steady flow of news.
Sports Center knows schedules. If you're going to Cleveland next Tuesday, it will tell you if the Indians are in town. It has lots of data useful to bettors -- who is injured, how the Braves are hitting against southpaws. Digging through nooks and crannies in the menu, we also found an on-line auto Blue Book, giving standard prices for used car models.
I was taking notes on the SideKick notepad while using Sports Center, and one sentence I wrote tells you a lot about this service. It reads, "This is FUN!"
But it's not particularly cheap. Sports Center (Gannett, 1-800-826-9688) costs $14.95 to sign up. On-line fees are $5 per hour for night and weekends, $15 per hour on business days. That can add up faster than the score of an NBA game, particularly if your home includes a sports-crazed pre-teen or two. You can call Sports Center with any communications software, among them Mirror and ProComm. But the service sells an excellent dedicated program, SportsWare, for $25.
I'm also smitten with a somewhat different on-line speciality, "Weather Brief," a computerized form of cable's Weather Channel. On the computer, you can steer directly to the information you need without waiting an hour for the announcer to get to it.
Weather Brief has an array of data. If you need to know the barometer reading in Waco, yesterday's statewide high in Ohio, the hours of sunshine expected tomorrow in Belize, the location of the North Asian monsoon, the 90-day forecast for the wheat belt or the status of that flood in eastern Madhya Pradesh, it's all there, and all easy to get at.
I particularly like the maps, which are simply beautiful in VGA color. Having gotten into the habit of calling up the daily map of lightning strikes in the United States, we can assert without fear of contradiction that lightning does strike twice in the same place.
Weather Brief is useful for farmers, commodity traders, pilots, boat owners and -- of course -- meteorologists. But the program is cheap enough even for amateur weather buffs. Weather Brief (Weather Bank Inc., 801-530-3131) costs $53 for a subscription and the software package. It is available at Egghead and some other stores. You also pay on-line charges, but the system is so well designed that they are quite low.
Before you call Weather Brief, you work up a menu of data you want. The computer then dials an 800 number, downloads the data and hangs up. You read the info off-line. This serves to minimize the connect charge. We've been able to pull down giant libraries of global weather information for 70 cents a day.