Home Is Where the Money Is

IT COULD BE THE PLOT OF A HIGH-tech horror movie. The company that brought you MS-DOS, arguably the world's most awkward operating system, now wants to invade the home. Anyone who has spent time trying to untangle MS-DOS (a.k.a. messy doss) probably won't expect much from Microsoft's new Home line. The surprise is that while Microsoft still has a lot to learn about marketing to the average consumer, the company has made a decent start. Here's a sampling:

CD-ROM encyclopedias are a tough market, with major competition from, among others, Grolier's and Compton's. Microsoft's entry, Encarta, earns extra points for dazzling graphics. It's easy to leap from one topic to another, with just a click of a mouse, and the 1994 version (it's updated yearly) includes 7,000 photos and illustrations, sound, animation and video clips. The big question, for Encarta and other computer encyclopedias, is whether these products really do the job. Encarta may be the slickest of the CD-ROM encyclopedias in form, but its content pales before the comprehensive printed encyclopedias, like the Britannica. Encarta is available for Mac and Windows ($139).

A better CD-ROM reference choice is Microsoft's Bookshelf, a collection of seven desktop standards on one disc. There's a dictionary, a thesaurus, a book of quotations, a desk encyclopedia, an atlas, a brief history and an almanac. Introduced in 1987, Bookshelf was one of the first CD-ROMs on the market. In the 1994 version you can search all the books at once or one at a time, It's easier and faster than searching through a pile of books. Bookshelf is available for Windows and Mac ($99.95).

Fine Artist and Creative Writer, both for 8- to 14-year-olds, will need all of Microsoft's clout. There are already excellent drawing and writing programs available for this age group, and many children's software manufacturers have established a strong presence. Fine Artist, in particular, must compete against Broderbund's Kid Pix, a popular and easy-to-use program. Fine Artist and Kid Pix offer many of the same features: on-screen painting and drawing tools, electronic stickers, sound effects and slide shows. Both come in Windows and Mac versions. Kid Pix is cheaper-$39.95 vs. $64.95 for Fine Artist. Most children will find Kid Pix easier to use because it's simpler.

The structure of Creative Writer is similar to Fine Artist's, with a cartoon character called McZee acting as a guide. Some clever devices are intended to alleviate writer's block, including a gallery of drawings and funny sentence fragments to mix and match. Elementary-school-age children may enjoy using it, but kids older than 12 probably will want something a tad less cute. Creative Writer is available for both Windows and Mac ($64.95).

Microsoft is trying hard in the fast-growing category that software developers call edutainment, a combination of education and entertainment. The company has some real winners. Dinosaurs, a CD-ROM, tells you everything you want to know about prehistoric creatures with captivating videos, clear diagrams and narration by a real paleontologist, Don Lessem. Musical Instruments, another CD-ROM, is the equivalent of a coffee-table book for the computer. It's a virtual encyclopedia of music, with appropriate sound effects-a great learning tool. Art Gallery presents the collection of the National Gallery in London. There's lots of interesting commentary, and it's easily accessible, even if you don't know Titian from Turner. All CD-ROMs are $79.95, for both Windows and Mac.