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If you’ve ever wondered why its rivals in the computer software industry hate Microsoft, the brand-new release of its CD-ROM reference package, Bookshelf, may help you to understand.

From its first release in 1987, Bookshelf has consistently been cited as the one CD reference work you should have if you could have only one. But Microsoft, juggernaut that it is, never rests.

It would be nice to compare Bookshelf 98 ($54.95 list) with the competition, but so far, there is none. After leaving Bookshelf 1996-97 out there for quite a while, Microsoft has produced the new edition nearly six months before the year for which it is named.

It is based on virtually the same set of reference works as its predecessor: The American Heritage Dictionary; Roget’s Thesaurus; The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations; The World Almanac and Book of Facts; The People’s Chronology; Bookshelf Internet Directory; Encarta Desk Atlas; and a zip code directory.

This last reference was called the “Address Builder” in the last edition. Now it’s called the “National Five-Digit Zip Code and Post Office Directory.” Fancier name, same thing.

There is one different volume: The Columbia Concise Encyclopedia has given way to the Encarta 98 Desk Encyclopedia. This is a slimmed-down edition of Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia. It’s not clear why the Encarta version is an improvement over the Columbia work, since the new book has 16,000 entries and the old one had 17,000. Microsoft does like to promote its own brand names.

There is one all-new book: The Microsoft Bookshelf Computer and Internet Directory. This is a 7,300-entry glossary of computer lingo and technical terminology. Most of it is beyond the imaginable need or interest of an ordinary user, but it does give you a way, for example, to find out that ISDN stands for Integrated Services Digital Network, and to read an explanation that this new technology is intended “to replace the current telephone network, which requires digital-to-analog conversions, with facilities totally devoted to digital switching and transmission.”

A notable new feature of Bookshelf is enhanced use of the Internet. There is now a menu choice, “Go Online.” It performs Internet searches using the Infoseek search engine, which will comb “Bookshelf’s preferred Web sites,” or, if you prefer, will look through Bookshelf’s “Premier News” sites. You have to provide the Internet access.

You can also search what’s called the “Encarta Online” library, which requires a $29.95 subscription in addition to owning Bookshelf. The only other benefit of subscribing is you’ll get a 30-day free trial of the next Bookshelf release, after which you can buy it. Gee, thanks.

The traditional and widely copied Bookshelf interface has been preserved. It consists mainly of a window on the left of the screen containing an alphabetical list of words and subjects. There is an entry box above the list. You can either scroll through the list or enter a word in the entry box and click your mouse (or press the enter key). Your search results then appear in the list window below. You can then click on which of the entries you want to see.

The information you ask for appears in a much larger window to the right occupying about two-thirds of the screen. With each article or definition there is a speaker icon. Click on it and a computerized voice that sounds like a schoolmaster pronounces the word for you.

Bookshelf’s Atlas also plays various national anthems on a synthesizer. Tinny, but you can hear the tune.

There are other sound effects as well. As you move your mouse pointer around the menus at the top of the screen, there are clicks signifying movement from one to another. When you make a selection, there is a distinct whoosh, suggesting Bookshelf is responding at great speed.

In fact, Bookshelf is pretty fast, but how fast depends on the speed of your CD-ROM drive. There are some shortcuts to help speed things up. Previous editions had a feature called “Quickshelf,” which placed mini-icons representing each reference work at the top of your screen at all times. This has given way to a small icon on the Windows 95 taskbar. A left click brings up Bookshelf’s main screen. A right click brings up a small menu from which you can choose whether to make a quick search for a quote, a definition, a zip code or a search of all volumes.

As in past editions, there are excellent uses of multimedia. An animated sequence showing how arteriosclerosis develops and affects the flow of blood is wonderfully clear, and a narrated explanation, with color graphics, of DNA is as notably lucid and easy to follow. Both were in Bookshelf 1996-97 too.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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