The ideal present for Santa Claus is a notebook PC with database management software so he can make a list and check it twice. An electronic mapping program like Delorme AAA Map'nGo or Microsoft Automap Trip Planner might come in handy as well.
If you're buying software for mere mortals, you'll have to put some thought into what you buy, and make sure that whatever you get will be appropriate. If you don't already know, send an elf to find out what type of machine the person uses. A Windows program for a Mac user (or the other way around) is about as welcome as last year's fruitcake.
Many programs are available in both formats, sometimes on the same CD. Also, be sure the machine has what it takes to use whatever you buy. The good news is that anyone who has bought a computer in the last two or three years probably has a CD-ROM drive and enough memory and hard disk space for whatever program you leave under the tree or by the menorah.
What to buy depends, of course, on the person's age and taste. Most programs designed for children have an age range printed on the box. In addition, many programs are now rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (http://www.esrb.org) or the Recreational Software Advisory Council (http://www.rsac.org). These ratings are designed to give you a clue regarding the appropriate age, and sometimes also include content descriptions such as "mild realistic violence" or "mature sexual themes."
When my kids were little, they appreciated just about any program I gave them to play with. The mere experience of interacting with the computer and software with sounds and animated characters was enough to get their attention. They even enjoyed educational programs.
But as kids age, they become more discriminating. To begin with, a lot of kids already know what they want. I urge parental discretion, but I also suggest that you pay attention to what your child wants.
Many programs that come to our house fit into the category of "edutainment," which means they are typically built around two themes. The educational theme is something like math, reading, the environment or geography, and the entertainment theme is typically a maze, a battle against bad creatures or some type of quest. I'm all for education, but it is also important that the program has good game play, especially if it's a holiday present.
I'm impressed with the Trail programs from MECC. The original Oregon Trail (Mac and Windows) has players travel through the American frontier but, to get to Oregon, they must purchase supplies and deal with famine, death, raging rivers, dangerous weather and lots more. It's extremely challenging for kids (10 and up) and adults, and quite fun.
The latest trail game, Amazon Trail II, requires kids to travel through time and geography as they work their way to the head of the Amazon. Like other Trail games, it has excellent animation, a good sound track and occasional video.
Some programs, like Amazing Learning Games With Rayman (DOS or Windows) from UbiSoft, are basically Nintendo-style action games with an educational twist. This particular title, designed for kids ages 6 to 9, weaves math and grammar exercises into the game play.
Maxis makes Sim products for just about every age group. Sim stands for simulation, and the company offers titles such as SimCity, SimFarm, SimGolf, SimEarth and plenty more. In each game you are assigned the task of running a simulated environment. It can be extremely challenging and rewarding. SimPark (Windows CD), for kids 8 and up, lets them manage their own nature park. By introducing new plants, animals and other elements, your child can create an interdependent ecosystem in a jungle, forest, meadow or other environment.
For pure entertainment, our family had fun playing NBA Full Court Press (Windows CD) from Microsoft. This basketball simulation program has the sounds and moves of a real game in all 29 National Basketball Assn. arenas.
Know a Steven Spielberg wannabe? You can put that person in Spielberg's Director's Chair (Windows and Mac CD) from Knowledge Adventure and DreamWorks Interactive. Spielberg guides you as you help write a movie script and work with actors.
With all the hype, glitter and shopping mania, it's easy to forget that, for many, this is a religious period. Compton's Interactive Bible New International Version (Windows CD) from Compton's NewMedia would make an excellent gift for anyone who is serious about the New or Old Testament.
Internet surfers looking for a religious experience might appreciate the book "God on the Internet," by Mark A. Kellner (IDG Books,  762-2974).
The "Guide to the Jewish Internet," by Michael Levin (No Starch Press  420-7240), would make a great Hanukkah present. Well- written and beautifully designed, the 344-page book takes you to hundreds of sites of interest to Jews around the world. It comes with a Windows floppy diskette that provides you with links to sites mentioned in the book as well as fonts that allow you to read Hebrew with your Web browser.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com