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COMMUNICATION PROGRAMS MAKE STRIDES

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For years we've been telling you to get one good telecommunications program, learn it well and stick with it. We didn't think there was anything to gain from buying and learning programs that connect you to just one on-line service.

Ever since we discovered Relay in the 1980s, we've used it for all our telecommunicating. It was the first software to truly automate the task. It needed less fiddling, less memory and less typing accuracy than its competitors.It stores the phone numbers it dials for each location we call. It also stores for each number (and automatically uses) all the technical commands that allow successful information exchange, like parity and baud rate. It stores and transmits the passwords we need to get into well-secured databases.

Relay also stores a special file with commands for transmitting our columns to subscribing newspapers. The program uses it to conform each transmission to a particluar newspaper's style.

Other telecom programs now offer most of Relay's features. But we learned it and love it, so we figured, "Why buy another telecom program?"

We now see a reason why. It's the huge increase in services offered by most on-line data base providers. When we first signed up with CompuServe, they sent a thin book listing everything offered. They don't use books any longer.

It's a lot harder now to quickly figure out where CompusServe (the provider we use most) hides various data bases. Not only that. To find your way, you have to type precisely. You have to memorize or generate an enormous list of commands.

So Frank finally decided to see what CompuServe's CIS Manager software offers for reaching out and touching their forums, files and on-line markets. Since it's available on-line for DOS, Windows, and Macs, Frank acquired it by having Relay phone CompuServe's local number (they have them in most cities).

Frank typed his way through all the menus that lead to the CIS Manager file. Downloading the file took nearly an hour (and it was compressed!). But download was automatic and it happened on a 10-cent phone call. The program's $10 cost was charged to our account, but it generated a credit for $10 worth of service.

What can it do that Relay can't? First, it lets you read the e-mail left in the "box" that part of your monthly fee buys you - even if you don't remember the commands that open your box. But anyone who logs on-line almost daily, like Frank, can remember those easy commands.

Then, instead of having to type GO ENS (electronic news service) to read what our electronic clipping service has found for us, Frank can get there by clicking an icon. But CIS Manager is most useful in getting Frank quickly into data bases he hadn't used before.

For instance, that day he wanted to check the course of a big storm moving through the Caribbean. (Owning a villa in Jamaica creates a proprietary interest.) CompuServe is so big and badly organized, Frank used to rely on Charles Bowen's book, CompuServe From A to Z, for getting around on it.

Instead of looking up "weather" in Bowen, Frank can just click on CIS Manager's Weather icon. Onscreen, he immediately sees which weather data bases are free and how much the rest cost per minute to view.

When Frank found out that Jamaica weather isn't covered on U.S. weather data bases, the program took him quickly back to the main menu. Clicking on the News icon to get to Associated Press News, he scrolled through the weather forecast that came up, unbidden, for our own town and it found a bunch of reports on the Caribbean storm.

Prodigy, like CompuServe, offers free telecom software for getting into Prodigy. And several software makers offer alternatives to CompuServe's program. We tested John C. Dvorak's NavCis Pro. If you belong to CompuServe, downloading a free "digest version" takes just a minute or two.

Downloading the 30-days-free working version can run up half an hour of connect time. When Frank installed it, the first thing he saw was all the spelling errors. The Windows version didn't recognize F1 as the help key. And setup required remembering that "ATDT" is the nearly universal code to get a modem to wake up (something Relay never made us use).

Then, the first time it logged onto CompuServe, NavCis arrogantly changed all our personal settings to suit its needs. Resetting them for Relay was going to take so much puttering, we thought maybe it was a plot to keep us wedded to NavCis.

But by Day 2, we were more impressed. For one thing, NavCis lets you type in all your search information before dialing CompuServe's phone number. Second, it's a lot faster than CIS Manager. After it logged onto CompuServe, it took just 27 seconds to copy down two new e-mails and headlines for all our new messages on Executive News Service.

We could log off, scan the titles, mark which articles we wanted to read, write answers to our e-mail, and then log on again. In about a minute, it sent our e-letters and copied a lot of text onto our hard disk. Being able to browse through messages at our leisure instead of while the clock ticks will save us many haours every month - enough to make up the program's $67 cost.