Lewis and Clark Sure Could've Used This

I DIDN'T blame the computer for the flat tire in the snowstorm. I went along with its suggestion to leave Interstate 90 for Interstate 94 and then cross over again a few miles later. But when I reached Rolling Prairie, Ind., on US 20, I knew something was wrong.

This wasn't going to be the quickest route from Chicago to Pittsburgh, no matter what the computer said.

This was my maiden voyage with a pioneering software program called Automap. Designed to help drivers get around, it can calculate the shortest route from Dayton to Des Moines, Miami to Walla Walla.

It's fun. More important, it's part of an explosion of computerized mapping on desktop machines. That's why we stick with pioneering software. We always end up in interesting places, even if occasionally it takes the wrong turn.

Computer mapping has long been the province of big mainframe and minicomputers. Utilities, emergency services, and other entities used computer maps to monitor their territories. That was fine for people with the money and sophistication to use the tools. The small businessperson was left out in the cold.

No longer. Computer mapping is moving to the desktop in forms that are cheaper and easier to use than ever. The market is taking off as a result. Automap has sold roughly 400,000 units in the two years it has been in the United States. Another player, Strategic Mapping, has doubled its size in each of the last two years. Even companies established in the high end of the market are moving their products to the personal computer.

"I think '93 is going to be the big push for it," says S. J. Camarata, worldwide marketing and sales director for Environmental Systems Research Institute. Two to three years ago, this market leader sold twice as many large-system software packages as PC-based units. Today, over half of its unit sales are PC products.

The software is selling so well because geography turns out to be a surprisingly useful way to look at data.

Retail stores can figure out where their sales are coming from. Police can map where the most crimes occur. Travelers can use Strategic Mapping's Local Expert to explore the world.

If you buy one or more of the company's 100 city databases, the program lets you see street-level detail, as well as the location and phone numbers for tours, recommended restaurants, and so on. With my evaluation copy, I was able to find five translation services in Tokyo, see the location of the Hilton Hotel where I stayed in San Francisco, and look through the current museum exhibitions in Boston.

Phoning long-distance? Local Expert can tell you where the area code is located. Mailing a letter? The program can show where a zip code originates.

At the moment, this may be more fluff than substance. An ordinary zip-code directory is more detailed. And who really wants to lug a laptop through Paris when a guidebook is so much simpler? (And cheaper. The company charges $25 for every city you add, although it is considering bundling a group of them at a cheaper price.)

But a few years from now, technology may have solved those problems. Maybe today's seven-pound notebook computer is the size of a pocket radio. Maybe it's linked to a black box that can read its current position from satellite signals. Maybe this device is installed on your car dashboard.

Car companies are already working on prototypes of such a system. Theoretically, you would never get lost.

Unless, of course, the map is wrong.

Don Coffey of Automap's technical support was very gracious over the telephone. I explained the problem: On the screen US 20 and Interstate 90 look as if they connect, but they don't. He showed me how to make Automap avoid that road. He promised to send the programmers a correction.

I must like this technology. The snow-covered fields of Rolling Prairie, Ind., looked kind of neat that night.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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