Click on the video icon "World War II" in Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia CD-ROM, and a movie appears on your computer screen to tell you about the war.
It lasts for 2 1/2 minutes.
Needless to say, this is neither very informative nor useful, considering we are probably talking about the most significant historical event of this century.
For a far more complete digital look at the war, there is now an "interactive documentary" by FlagTower, an English software company that has just begun distributing its products in the United States.
Along with its "World War II" double disc CD-ROM set, the company, which specializes in historical software, is also releasing the single CD-ROM titles "World War I," "The War in the Pacific" and "The Space Race."
All are crammed with information that can be accessed by clicking on various topics and timelines, but they can also all be viewed chronologically from start to finish, documentary style, with narration. As you watch, photos, video clips, maps and other visuals appear on the screen.
If you viewed the FlagTower "World War II" in this manner, straight through, it would take you about six hours, according to the user manual.
The saga begins with a small, square image in the middle of the screen. It's a photograph of Hitler on the balcony of his Bavarian retreat in 1939, shortly before his armies invaded Poland, launching war in Europe. The next images in the window are from home movies of Hitler and associates at the retreat. Then the entire screen fills with stark, black-and-white photos of the war to come.
It is an incredibly dramatic opening.
The narrative section then explores the political climate leading to the war, beginning with Germany's defeat in World War I. There are photographs to accompany description of that country's economic devastation and runaway inflation, eventually leading to the Nazis' rise to power.
The documentary switches to Asia to show the rise of the military in Japan and its invasion of China in the 1930s. Then it continues to track both parts of the world, back and forth, as the war expands and other countries, including the United States, become involved.
You can stop the documentary at any time to click on icons that give you access to extra materials, such as short biographies of historical figures, audio clips of radio broadcasts, information on various weapons and scenes from home front life in countries at war.
You can skip around to different time periods or you can use the program's "Theaters of War" browser to compare what was happening on different battlefronts at various times.
I am not a scholar of these war years, but the information given on this CD-ROM set seems straightforward. It's neither highly analytical nor does it pretend to present new information or viewpoints about the war. It has taken on the task of providing a storehouse of information, presented in an engaging fashion, for the multimedia home computer user.
To do this, the FlagTower programs are graphics oriented to the extreme. "World War II" makes use of more than 2,000 photographs and more than 100 maps, plus video clips, original graphics, icons and a liberal use of typography.
Almost every image in this CD-ROM set is a collage, partly graphic and partly photographic, with visuals layered together for a desired effect.
The resulting images are often brilliant. But this graphic design is also the biggest drawback of the FlagTower historical CD-ROMs.
At first, the beautiful collages are arresting--they certainly drew me into the "World War II" program. But eventually, I hungered to see some of the remarkable photos without all the graphic ornamentation. If one picture is worth a thousand words, this multilayering has the effect of many voices heard all at once, shouting at you.
After 10 minutes or so, I was well into visuals overload. I can't imagine what six hours of this would be like.
But if you can get past the artful, visual clutter, this "interactive documentary" is a serious work that would most likely add new dimensions to the musings of armchair historians who don't mind paying a premium to feed their history habits.
The suggested retail price of the FlagTower "World War II" is $69.95, although like most software, it will likely be widely available at a discount.
* Cyburbia's Internet address is David.Colker@latimes.com.