Sherlock or Watson? It's elementary

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Persuading people to change the way they're accustomed to doing something is almost always a tough sell.

Back in the late 1980s, when cable television finally arrived in Baltimore, I was still living in my parents' home in the northeast section of the city.

I wanted my MTV. They didn't.

"We don't need cable," they argued. "Everything we want to watch is on regular TV."

Descriptions of what cable could offer them -- channels devoted to old movies, history, sports, entertainment -- always were met with that same response. Eventually, I gave up and had cable installed in our basement for myself.

Years later, my mother, now living in a condominium, finally got cable. Not long afterward, she told me about all the wonderful old movies she could watch on American Movie Classics, among other channels. She'd never give up cable now.

So, what does my mother's television viewing habits have to do with Macs, or even computers, for that matter?

Accept for a moment the notion that a typical Web browser -- Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator or Apple Computer Inc.'s own Safari -- is akin to "regular" broadcast television. While adequate, it has limitations.

Now, imagine a Web utility that, like cable television, could collect specific information -- say, your local weather -- off the Internet from multiple sources and arrange it neatly in one window.

I'm referring to Apple's Sherlock 3 utility, one of the new features introduced with Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar last August. If you're running Jaguar, you have Sherlock 3, though you may never have used it.

"I don't need it," one might say. "I can find everything I need on the Web with Internet Explorer."

Of course you can, but like my mother's experience with cable, an unfamiliar amenity's true benefits often aren't apparent until you've tried it yourself.

Over the seven months since I've been using Sherlock 3, I've become more dependent on how conveniently it repackages the trove of data on the Internet.

Rather than merely display Web pages -- replete with banners, blinking ads and scads of information you usually don't want -- Sherlock 3 draws upon those same pages but pulls only the relevant information and displays it in a clean, efficient manner.

It's important to note, however, that Sherlock 3 is not a complete browser replacement, but a supplemental tool for targeted uses.

Those uses appear as 10 "channels" stripped across the top of the Sherlock 3 window. They include eBay, Stocks, Yellow Pages, Movies and Dictionary.

Perhaps the best example of how Sherlock 3 works is its Movie channel. Type in your ZIP code, click on "Theaters" and, within seconds, the window provides the names of the theaters closest to your location. Clicking on a theater name reveals the list of movies showing there.

Clicking on a movie's name brings up a list of showtimes at the theater, a plot summary and begins the download of a promotional trailer in QuickTime format.

You also may start with a list of movies. Clicking on the movie brings up a list of theaters where it's playing along with descriptive information about the film.

Sure, you could get this same information from a regular Web browser, but it would take several more steps -- and the information most likely would not be displayed as coherently.

And because it's packaged with the Mac operating system, Sherlock 3 costs nothing (well, unless you count what you paid for Jaguar).

Which brings us to an unfortunate aspect of Sherlock 3: Apple borrowed -- though some might say "stole" -- the idea of culling and repackaging Internet data from a tiny shareware outfit, Karelia Software Inc. in Alameda, Calif.

Shortly after Karelia introduced "Watson" in December 2001, it started racking up awards and accolades, including "Best Productivity Utility" from Macworld magazine, and interestingly, an Apple Design Award for Most Innovative Mac OS X Product of 2002.

Though Apple said it was "inspired" by Watson, it paid Karelia nothing. When Sherlock 3 was demonstrated at MacWorld New York last July, Watson creator Dan Wood told The Mac Observer he felt Apple had infringed on his idea, but declined to pursue legal action.

Instead, Wood determined to make Watson better than Sherlock. The latest version of Watson, released last month, offers 19 built-in channels versus Sherlock 3's 10.

"We're not that upset anymore," Wood writes on Karelia's Web site. "Unfortunately for Apple, Sherlock 3 is not quite up to par with Watson in terms of speed and capability."

In truth, if you like Sherlock, you'll love Watson. Though it costs $29, Watson's many more channels and better implementation of those similar to Apple's software put it ahead of Sherlock 3.

If Sherlock is cable, then Watson is digital cable.

Watson runs on Mac OS X 10.1 or later -- another advantage over Sherlock 3, which requires Mac OS X 10.2 -- and can be downloaded directly from Karelia's site. The program functions in demonstration mode for two weeks, after which the purchase of a registration code is required.

Besides the categories of information Sherlock can retrieve, Watson adds such channels as a ZIP code search by address, a Phone channel that includes a reverse lookup feature, an Exchange channel that converts prices between most major world currencies and a channel that presents data from PriceGrabber.com in columns, just like OS X's Column view.

And Watson's channels typically provide more information than Sherlock's.

Watson's Packages channel, for example, offers the ability to track packages from five shippers, including U.S. Postal Service Inc. The Television channel offers far more information that a third-party plug-in available for Sherlock 3, including even VCR Plus+ numbers and a button for instantly adding a program to your iCal calendar.

With third-party channels, both Sherlock and Watson are extensible -- that is, people with the know-how can create custom channels.

Watson doesn't have as many third-party channels as Sherlock, but with so many more built-in channels, it doesn't need them. However, Watson's means of adding such channels is senselessly easy -- simply select "install more tools" from the Watson menu and click on those that appeal to you. The channel immediately is downloaded, installed and ready to use.

Another excellent illustration of how handy this technology can be is the Watson third-party channel Baseball, which lists the scores of current games. Clicking on a game brings up as much information as any sports junkie could want, including full batting and pitching stats from the game as well as a report from The Associated Press.

Adding third-party channels to Sherlock 3 requires more effort, but not much. At least two Web sites offer the home-grown channels: Sherlockers.com and Sherlock Channels.

A few of these match some of Watson's broader abilities, such as Weather and Television, but many appeal to a variety of narrow interests.

There's Astrology for those who like to check their daily horoscope; Lyrics for hunting down the words to a favorite song, though the data sources for this channel are not particularly deep; Project Gutenberg searches for texts of copyright-expired books that can be downloaded without cost.

Although only a couple dozen third-party channels exist now, no doubt intrepid developers soon will create more. In fact, both of the third-party Sherlock channels Web sites invite suggestions for new ones.

Every new channel illustrates the limitations of "regular" Web browsers versus the Watson-Sherlock 3 way.

Once you've tried it, you won't want to give it up.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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