Sherlock or Watson? It's elementary

Web utilities offer Mac users a better way to browse the Internet

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.

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