Computers: Putting on-line inquiry systems on right track: Mike Holderness finds a faster way from Runcorn to Cambridge

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There is, notoriously, a wealth of information 'on- line'. But setting up a modem to allow your computer to communicate with another one over the telephone line is one of the harder tasks that personal computer users have to tackle. And the easier-to- use on-line services levy time charges, so users are deterred by fears about the costs of exploring them.

Phonelink believes it has the answer in its Tel-Me service, launched in partnership with IBM. Indeed, Steve Rowley of IBM believes Tel- Me is 'the next killer application' - a new concept, like a word processor or a spreadsheet, which people will buy a computer just to get their hands on.

Tel-Me is a Windows application - running under the PC-compatible's graphics- based operating system - which gives you access to eight services: the AA travel guide; BT's telephone number database; Thompson Directories; the Post Office database of addresses; British Rail timetable inquiries; Ordnance Survey schematic road- maps; Infocheck company reports; weather forecasts; and the Press Association news wire. More are promised.

Tel-Me is mainly aimed at the sales staff in small companies. Trevor Burke of Phonelink says users in this sector make up 95 per cent of the on-line market and they are never going to learn efficient Boolean-algebra searching techniques for databases or Internet 'net- surfing'.

With normal modem settings, just dialling the Independent's computer to file this piece took 20 seconds. Phonelink has developed a modem which will connect to its database near Birkenhead, Merseyside, in two seconds. That - and proprietary data compression - means that the program can dial up, throw a query at the Tel-Me host, get the answer and hang up in 10 to 15 seconds.

Users need never know it is an on-line service. What they see is a Windows program that might as well have a few billion bytes of data stored locally. It is not much slower than some CD-rom searches.

The presentation is clear and colourful and, unusually, I failed to crash the program. This really does seem to be instant, on-tap information for the computer user rather than the on-line enthusiast. Some of the things the database can do are impressive, too. Telephone British Rail for times from Runcorn to Cambridge and you get a five-hour direct train. Only a pathologically patient operator with 15 minutes to spare could tell you that by changing at Lichfield you can save an hour and twenty minutes. Tel-Me produces that in 10 seconds. With the fragmentation of BR services, Tel-Me may soon be the only way to discover how to get from A to D.

This speed and comprehensiveness is achieved by loading all the databases - except Phonebase: BT refused - into proprietary hardware.

The potential for future services is staggering, even though technologically this centralisation of data seems an old-fashioned concept when everyone else on-line is boasting about how much data in Adelaide or Anchorage you can access on the world-wide global information network.

To practised database users, the present Tel-me system is rigid. I wanted all the Press Association headlines for stories about Singapore not mentioning corporal punishment. No dice. I suspect users will demand such filtering, especially when Tel-Me starts carrying advertising. Before long, when you call up a road map to get to an meeting it will show you all the nearby Indian restaurants.

Tel-Me will be available from next Monday. IBM will ship a demonstration version with all its PCs and from September will pre-load the complete program. You will just have to register it.

If Tel-Me lives up to expectations, how will the database stand up? Chris Knowles of Phonelink says: 'We have done flood testing and we know that we have capacity for 2,000 enquiries per second. With such short queries, that could support more than 10,000 people, maybe 40,000, sitting in front of their computers at once.' If it really is the next 'killer application', we will find out how that works in the real world.

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