THE GOODS : Software's Oscars : Saluting the best and the brightest programs for personal computers, the Codie Awards celebrate a stretching of horizons. What's ahead? A radically widening variety of uses.


Going unnoticed in the spring's annual deluge of Oscars, Grammys and Tonys were the Codies, a relative newcomer to the world of awards.

The Codies (named for computer codes) are handed out by the Software Publishers Assn. for excellence in personal computer software.

Traditionally, PCs have been associated with such home chores as word processing or Lotus spreadsheets, with a few games thrown in. But this year's winners of the Codie crystal disks are a multimedia array of graphics, sound, motion, lighting and color. Together, they suggest a much more versatile role for the PC in the future.

"The level of entries certainly bodes well for the software industry and the nation as a whole, says Ken Wasch, executive director of the association. "These programs all enhance the way we work, live and learn."

Winners in 16 home consumer categories, chosen from more than 500 nominations, focus on interactive experience, not just sitting passively in front of a screen.

"What we see now is the emergence of a real consumer movement," says Keith Ferrell, editor of Omni magazine, which covers emerging technologies. Ferrell is on an SPA press tour of major cities this week--at his own expense--to give consumers a preview of what's coming to their home screens.

"There are lots of wonderful computer columnists writing in the country, but they are mostly preaching to the converted," he says. "I'm going on this tour because I wanted to talk in plain English about this software explosion. It is something that can transform a household."

Noting that the PC invasion of American households passed the 25% mark last year, and that many PCs now come equipped with CD-ROM players, sound capability and modems, Ferrell describes the growth as a "revolution that is happening very quickly" and attributes the momentum to three aspects:

* The software is easier to use. "Instead of typing a string of commands to start a program, you use a mouse to point an arrow and click."

* The hardware quality is better. "It's closer to the TV experience in terms of sound and graphics, much more appealing than the old green-and-black monitor."

* The prices are more accessible. "I don't know of a more price-competitive field. There are bargains everywhere."

The SPA tour highlights 10 of the Codie winners, to emphasize the new software spectrum. Looking over the categories, Ferrell discussed their versatility:


Best Fantasy/Adventure: Myst, a nonviolent, surrealistic CD-ROM adventure in which a battered old book leads the reader into a world of mind-bending puzzles with a haunting soundtrack. "It's a role-playing experience, with phenomenal graphics, plunging you into the surrealistic world of dark mysteries."


Best School Productivity / Creativity: Kids Studio. "Addresses the generation coming along for whom computers are second nature. It gives kids a lot of multimedia tools. They can make reports, put in their own photos and sound, mix it all up into a report that talks, writes, sings and dances."


Best Personal Productivity and Best Consumer Program: Quicken 3.0 for Windows. Designed for people who hate math. "The creators have conceived the electronic wallet--one place where you can track everything, print checks, pay bills, update your register and reconcile your bank account, all made extremely clear and simple."


Best Home Learning: Microsoft Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia, a CD combining the full text of Funk & Wagnall's 29-volume encyclopedia with eight hours of digital sound, thousand of photos, interactive videos and more. "You can click a button and see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon."


Home Entertainment Product of the Year: Lemmings 2: The Tribes. Hours of hilarious and nonviolent problem-solving as kids try to save 12 tribes of cartoon creatures from their perilous plight on Lemmings Island. "It's one of those products that blows it wide open--for children, men, women, grandparents. Everyone who plays gets hooked on it."


Best Personal Creativity Program: Davidson's Kid CAD (computer-aided design). Like a computerized Lego set, it's basically a three-dimensional kit of electronic building blocks that will let children or adults create almost any kind of structure imagination allows. "You can create from scratch or pre-made structures, then add every detail from staircase to wallpaper."


Best Special Needs Program: Write: OutLoud. The same machine that plays Myst and balances your books is also a superb tool for a program that gives voice to thoughts. "Extremely sophisticated technology, for the student with a speech defect, who can write the words and hear the pronunciation of them."


Best Sports Program: Indycar Racing. Race the actual tracks from the Indycar speedway circuit. You're behind the wheel making all the decisions an Indy diver would make with the same results--if you put your wings up high, you will slow down; if you pump up the tires, you change the treads. "Simulations have grown dramatically in believability."


Best Simulation: SimCity 2000. "As computers have gotten more sophisticated and powerful, programmers have taken advantage of it. This is a new version of one of the most successful programs of all time, that allows you to do all sorts of new things. You can build maps, re-create the earthquake, design an earthquake-proof city, all in the context of entertainment."


Best Strategy Program: Iron Helix. An action adventure set in a cold-war future where a terrible biological weapon threatens to touch off a galactic holocaust. Players pilot a robot through a starship maze to foil the weapon. "Science fiction on a CD-ROM is a category I think is poised to take off."

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