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FOR DIRECTORY ASSISTANCE, TAP INTO COMPUTER'S POWERS

Your computer may never replace the telephone, but it's already making the information operator obsolete.

The fastest way to find a person or a business - either across town or across the country - is to tap into an electronic directory. And unlike the operator, the digital assistants will give you addresses as well as telephone numbers.Now, CD-ROM directories have been around awhile, boasting millions of telephone numbers. The problem is you have to keep buying new versions of the directory to stay current.

So along came PC411 and Internet directories. Both approaches give you access to the most current listings and are fast, easy ways to find information.

PC411 for Windows is the best of the breed here. It works like this: buy (800-2-GET-411) or download the PC411 software from the company's Internet site (http://www.pc411.com). Pay a $15 registration fee, and you get a $15 usage credit. You pay a minimum of 50 cents per successful query or 10 cents per listing for multiple queries.

To run a query, you select either a person or business. Then enter the name and, if you know it, the city, state or region of the country. Click find listings, and the software automatically dials into the PC411 database, finds the number you need, enters it into a log and hangs up.

The whole process takes seconds. PC411 scans white and yellow page listings for both the United States and Canada.

You can enter the names of up to 1,000 people or businesses in different locales in a single search. It will find listings even if you don't know where a person or business is located.

And if you specify a city and PC411 can't find the listing you want, it automatically searches directories of adjacent areas.

There is no extra charge if your query produces more than one listing. For example, I tried to find a listing for my dad in Los Angeles. His name is rather common: Tom McDonald. Though PC411 retrieved a dozen possibilities, I paid only one 50-cent charge.

I paid $1 after requesting telephone numbers for 10 relatives (10 cents each) in three different states.

If PC411 can't find a listing you've requested, you pay nothing.

"It's silly to pick up a phone, get an area code, call and ask an operator to look in a computer for information, and then call the number to ask the company for their address and zip code," said Chris Hansen, PC411 president.

The listings PC411 generates can be saved in an address book, formatted into a mail list or posted directly into a letter. PC411 also will dial a number directly from the computer.

In June the company will release the second version of PC411, which will have a reverse search feature: enter a telephone number and it will retrieve the name of the person or business.

PC411 may be on the verge of becoming a more well-known player in the computer world. Last Tuesday, the company announced U.S. Robotics, the largest modem manufacturer in the United States, will include PC411 on the "Connections" CD-ROM bundled with its Sportster modems.

Meanwhile, telephone directories are sprouting all over the Internet. Like PC411, they'll give you address information as well as telephone number. The directories that let you search by type of business are particularly handy for planning a vacation in another state or when trying to find a supplier for a certain material or service.

Here are a handful worth looking at:

- Switchboard (http://www.switchboard.com): A free national telephone directory that searches telephone numbers and addresses using an individual or business name. To search a business, though, you need to know the company's name. You can't ask it to find a florist in Moab, for instance.

Switchboard also has large gaps in its database. It found only one of four names I entered. And it came up empty when I asked it for the telephone number of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, though it found seven circulation offices around the state.

- Lookup USA (http://www.lookupusa.com) from American Business Info, which bills itself as a virtual white and yellow pages, also searches individuals and businesses. But it also lets you look for a type of business, such as that florist in Moab.

It found one of my four names within seconds but drew blanks on the rest. It worked like a champ when I asked for a florist in Malibu, Calif., and even provided credibility rankings for the businesses.

- Toll-free Phone Directory (http://www.tollfree.att.net/index.html): This is a directory of toll-free 800 and 888 pre-fix numbers, provided by AT&T. You can search by category or do a quick search for a company whose name and location you know.

I tried searching for "fruit baskets" and got 38 toll-free numbers from businesses all over the country. I called Hadley Yosemite Farms in Merced, Calif., to see if they'd had any orders from Internet users.

Not that they knew of, a woman who answered the telephone said. But she said they had a great selection of dried fruit, including peaches and nectarines. Yum.

The quick-search feature also is a little faulty. When I asked it to find "Utah fruit" it pulled up Jay Bell, a Mansell & Associates Realtor in Fruit Heights. Hi, Jay!

My request for toll-free numbers for "Utah parks" was more successful. I got a whole screenful of numbers, ranging from Park City to Zion.

- Virtual Yellow Pages (http://www.vyp.com): This directory can be searched by subject: art, business, computers, education, finance, sports, health, Internet, media, professional, real estate and shopping.

- Yellow Pages of the World (http://www.globalyp.com): An international directory for 15 foreign countries, from Asia to the United Kingdom. Perfect for travelers.