Elementary, my dear Watson

The net’s a big place. Watson helps make it smaller.

Produced by a California-based company called Karelia Waston is a sort of specialized search engine for the Mac OS X operating system that offers 16 tools designed to provide a simpler, more productive interface for the immense treasure trove (and accompanying wasteland) that is the Internet.

There’s nothing in this tool — which is similar to Apple’s own meta-search tool, Sherlock — that you can’t get on the net. There’s the eBay auction tracker, an image database, a movie time viewer, a television guide, stock ticker and even a handy reference guide to the English language.

What Watson does that’s different is pull all this good stuff together into one simple, focused tool that easy to use and more efficient that dancing from one web site to the next. It’s not about dumbing down the Net for newbies — although they’ll definitely benefit from it — it’s about coming up with a graceful alternative to that ever-whirling Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator logo. It’s about making the Net work for you … not the other way around.

There are a couple tools that I found immediately useful in my day-to-day surfing. First and foremost is the Meerkat tool, which pulls down a constant stream of news and commentary from O’Reilly Books open source news wire. It’s a tech-heavy stream to be sure — topics include general tech news, MySQL, PHP and a host of open source technologies — but for someone like me, who works with this stuff every day, it’s a godsend.

Especially since it includes a stream from Slashdot, a site that I occasionally visit but can’t be bother to participate in (usually because of the rabid anti-corporate, anti-Microsoft, ain’t neo-communisum grand stance of many of its contributors). I particularly like the steady stream of Mac-centric news, including stuff from maccentral.com (a daily Mac news site), macosxhints.com, and myriad other sites. It don’t have time to surf all these sites … but I do have time to browse their headlines.

The movie guide is the first tool that caught my eye when I downloaded the trial — it’s is extraordinarily easy to use. When you first start using Watson, it’s asks for your basic contact information (and carefully points out that it only uses this information for configuration purposes; they aren’t bulk mailing this stuff off the Corporate Illuminati. The movie tool uses the zip code you gave, and displays a bunch of local theaters. Click on a theatre, and you get a list of movies. Click on movies, and you get a time. Click on a time and you get a description of the movie — and the ability to immediately look at a trailer. Again, nothing you couldn’t get online, but it was so much faster, so much more efficient, than traditional surfing.

The TV guide works the same way, taking your zip code and presenting you with a two-hour TV show grid based on the current time. You can easily advance the clock, but one thing you can’t do — which was a little disappointing — was expand the grid from two hours to four. On the Watson user list, a developer mentioned that two-hour grids were easier to read. Maybe … but I’d still like the option to strain my eyes and see an entire block of nightly TV watching.

The first tool I actually used first once I bought it — and hell, it’s one of the many reasons why I bought it — was the Recipe finder. This thing lets you browse recipes by geographic region or meal type, and let me almost instantly find a recipe for cajun pork chop (which in turn earned me brownie points with my wife, who was sick with a cold and craving something spicy to help clear out her sinuses).

I haven’t used it much yet, but the Reference tool looks good. It includes a dictionary, English style guides, the King James Bible, Gray’s Anatomy and much more. Also nice is the Version Tracker tool, which provides headlines from the popular Mac site of the same name. It offers news about the latest updates and patches for Mac software.

The other tools are neat, but are of limited use to me. There’s a phone directory, package tracker, and eBay bid tracker as well as a language translator and currency calculator. They’re not tools I need on a regular basis, but it’s nice to know they’re there.

The program installed easily, and registering it — for $29 — was very easy (heck, you can even complete the registration by simply dragging the confirmation message from Apple’s OS X Mail program directly into Watson itself — a neat trick that only works with Mail; Outlook Express and Entourage users’ll need to do it manually). The program runs fine on my dual USE iBook, which has 348 meg of ram and is running Mac OS X 10.1.4

Watson isn’t perfect. All of its tools require a live internet connection to use because none of the information is actually native to the program — Watson merely collects, organizes and presents it in an efficient manner. It would be nice if you could choose to download certain information — like movies listings or the TV guide grid — for offline browsing.

There’s also a few annoying little details — like the fact that you need to double click on a headline in Meercat in order to bring up a story — simply hitting the “return/enter” key does nothing. Since half the time I’m using my directional arrows to move around my laptop, using “enter” would be nice.

I’d love to see more headlines added to Meerkat (although this is a function of O’Reilly), especially more that aren’t so leftish. I’d also love to see a Weather tool (Weather.com is ok, but man, the ads have gotten extremely annoying).

Overall, I love this program. It’s the sort of cool, fun, sharp-looking tool that I’ve come to expect from the third-party OS X developers, as well as Apple itself. It’s only the second shareware program I’ve ever registered, and my first on the Mac — that alone should tell you something about just how nice this program is.

You can learn more about it by visiting it’s web site: http://www.karelia.com/watson/

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