Now and then I run across a Web site or service that promises to be incredibly useful. GuruNet and NoWonder.com are two that live up to their billing.
Launched this month, GuruNet is a source of instant information that pops up when you hold down the Alt key and click your mouse button on a word or phrase in a Web page, e-mail message, word processing document or any other Windows program.
In a second, you'll find yourself looking at a GuruNet Web page that has already figured out what you want to know. If you've clicked on a common word, you'll see a definition, with links to synonyms from a thesaurus. If it's a name (say, George Washington or Michael Jackson), you'll find a brief encyclopedia biography. If it's a publicly traded company such as The Sun's parent, Times Mirror Co., you'll find a Market Guide profile with quick links to current stock prices, historical charts, news and a corporate backgrounder.
You'll also find quick links to a variety of search engines and, as GuruNet becomes more popular, to Web pages on the same topic suggested by other users.
To access the service, you'll have to download a 700-kilobyte program from GuruNet's Web site. The software, which installs automatically, adds the Alt-click function to Windows and launches Microsoft Internet Explorer when you ask for information (unfortunately, there are no Netscape or Mac versions yet).
What amazes me is GuruNet's ability to understand the context of the words in your document and produce relevant information. For example, if I click on the word "time" in the phrase "It's time to go home," GuruNet shows me the definition of the word "time" from the American Heritage Dictionary and synonyms from Roget's II Thesaurus. If I click on the same word in the phrase "time flies," it finds the old cliche in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms and tells me that it means "Time passes quickly." When I click on "Time" in "Time Warner," it delivers information on the media conglomerate and its latest stock price.
Like a lot of cool Web software these days (including the popular ICQ instant messaging program), GuruNet was developed in Israel, but the company has backing from some heavy-duty Silicon Valley venture capitalists. It hopes to make money in two ways -- by linking to Internet content providers and merchants who pay GuruNet a fee if you buy something from them (Amazon.com has already signed up), and by providing customized, internal versions of its information engine to corporations and institutions.
Not surprisingly, GuruNet works best with a high-speed Internet connection through a local area network in an office or a college dorm, or a cable modem, DSL or ISDN provider at home. But it will function over a dial-up line as long as you're connected.
If you ever get stuck on a word or have to look up information for any reason (I guess that means most of us), GuruNet is a must-have Web utility. You can get it at www.gurunet.com.
Now let's talk about help, and how hard it is to get when something goes wrong with your computer. If you've ever found yourself on indefinite hold when you call a tech support line -- or you finally get through and find out that the guy on the other end has no idea what's making your life miserable -- it may be time to pay a visit to www.nowonder.com.
This free technical support site is manned by 1,200 knowledgeable volunteers who will answer your questions by e-mail, usually within 24 hours. You'll find experts on the Windows, Macintosh, OS/2 and Linux operating systems who get their kicks from helping other people instead of giving them the brush-off.
If you don't want to wait, you can also post your problem on a message board where other users can offer informal aid and comfort. The board appears to be a popular feature -- most of the help requests I saw generated multiple responses, often within an hour or so of being posted.
I stumbled on the site when a friend asked me whether it would be possible to use the new generation of Macintosh printers, scanners, disk drives and other peripherals with older Macs that don't have a Universal Serial Bus port.
Since I'm not a Mac hardware maven and didn't know the answer offhand, I posted the question on NoWonder.com. The same day I ggot a response from an experienced Mac user who told me it was quite possible if an older Mac has a free PCI slot. He also referred me to an online dealer who sold USB adapter cards. It couldn't have been much easier.
NoWonder's volunteers give the site's clients the same kind of courteous treatment I remember from my early days on the Compuserve Information Service, when patient, experienced users guided me through more than one jam. They understood that none of us emerged from the womb knowing how to format a floppy disk. It's good to see that this generosity and kindness still exists.
One final item: A few weeks ago I wrote about ClubPhoto (www.clubphoto.com), a site that lets you post your digital photos in online albums that family and friends can view with a Web browser. This week I discovered Zing, a Web photo album site that may be even easier to use and has some nifty features.
In addition to allowing you to upload your shots, Zing lets friends and relatives add photos of their own by e-mailing them to your album. You can also add photos to your album directly from any other site on the Web (just be careful about copyright violations). If you want to share your pictures on paper, Zing offers offers a small, downloadable program that will print any album photo in a variety of sizes on a single page -- for example, as two 5-by-7 portraits or eight wallet-size shots. Very cool. Point your Web browser to www.zing.com.