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Rewriting Life

Every Word a Link

New software extends hyperlinking.

In the web-ified 1990s, we’ve gotten used to hyperlinking-the ability to click on a highlighted word to call up other information. But in most of the text that fills your screen-word processing files, e-mail messages and such-there’s not a hyperlink in sight. Two new tools aim to let you click on any word in any document and get additional information.

Software introduced last fall by Palo Alto, Calif.-based GuruNet.com makes every piece of text on your screen “alive.” As long as you’re logged on to the Internet, you can click on a word and within three seconds a window pops up offering a dictionary definition, brief encyclopedia entry and a list of Web links on the topic. “We think that people should be able to point at a word and say, ‘tell me more,’ and within three seconds get an answer,” explains GuruNet founder and president Robert Rosenschein.

GuruNet, which stores the databases on its servers, is currently available only for Windows computers (free download at www.gurunet.com), but Rosenschein says a Macintosh version should be available soon; the company may also adapt the product for Linux and Palm computers. Future refinements may enable users to select their own reference databases instead of using the ones GuruNet has chosen.

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While GuruNet is for the basically curious, Babylon.com aims to satisfy the rapidly growing subset of Net users who know little English. Like GuruNet, Babylon.com, an Israel-based subsidiary of Mashov Computers, turns every word on the screen into a hyperlink. But Babylon’s primary function is translation to and from English. The premise is that anyone using the Internet is likely to know roughly 1000 basic English words; Babylon’s job is to translate the other 3 million or so words.

The translation database is downloaded during installation into the user’s computer, and so, unlike GuruNet, the software works even when you’re not online. Someone might, for example, use Babylon to decipher a downloaded Web page or a piece of English-language e-mail. Translations are provided between English and eight other languages: Spanish, German, Japanese, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Hebrew. The free Babylon software already has about 2 million registered users around the world, says CEO Shuki Preminger.

GuruNet and Babylon both extend the power of hyperlinking to documents that were not structured that way to begin with. Given that only a tiny portion of the world’s literature has been coded to include Web-style linking, that’s a far-reaching concept-and it could change forever the expectations people have of words on their screens.

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