Chart a Course to Your Data with Quarterdeck's WebCompass

by John Mather (

Copyright © 1996 John Mather. All rights reserved.

Over the last few issues, I have written several articles on searching for information on the World Wide Web. The primary focus of these articles was the use of search engines— software devices which gather and catalog details about what information is available on the Web so that you can then ask the engines where information on a particular topic is, rather than have to search every corner of the Web yourself.

Since each of the major search engines works differently (and more engines are created almost every day), you may have to repeat your search on several different engines, in order to make sure you have accessed all the possible references to a given subject. This is not only time- consuming but may require that you be familiar with the nuances of syntax that each engine supports.

It was inevitable that someone would introduce a "search engine engine." This is exactly what Limbex Corporation (now acquired by Quarterdeck) has done with WebCompass.

In its simplest form, WebCompass applies your search parameters to multiple search engines (WebCompass calls them "Resources") simultaneously. It then informs you as to how many responses it received from each resource and allows you to browse them directly from the WebCompass screen. While this would be a worthwhile capability in its own right, WebCompass does much more.

First, while WebCompass as installed comes with a number of standard resources (Yahoo, Alta Vista, Infoseek—many of the engines we mentioned in previous articles), it provides facilities for you to add new resources as they become available, and to delete others as you find them less useful. Your arsenal of resources need never become obsolete.

Second, WebCompass allows you to apply long-term intelligence to your information interests by focusing on a concept that WebCompass calls topics. By its own definition, a topic is an element, term or phrase of the WebCompass topic database that has associated definitions, synonymous query terms and links to related topics. Since that didn't do much for me, let me suggest that a topic is anything that you might have an interest in, beyond a simple one-time search, and that you would like WebCompass to monitor and organize for you.

Before diving off into the realm of topics, let's get our feet wet by performing a simple search with WebCompass. After all, for many people, that may be the only capability that's really needed.

At this point I should state that, wonderful as it is, I did not find WebCompass' interface particularly intuitive. Not all (although most) of the pictorial icons are labeled and most of the different page types do not contain top-level headers proclaiming their identity. Be prepared, therefore, to spend your early sessions with the manual in hand (which I did not think was the most intuitive manual I had ever read, either). Since the concepts involved are a little arcane, it takes a while to become really proficient in operating WebCompass, or even to understand all that it is offering you. The people who originally developed WebCompass have a heavy background in Artificial Intelligence and may have had a hard time getting their explanations down to the level of us mere mortals. Nonetheless, stick with it; this is a cool concept.

Anyway, I'm going to assume you have bought WebCompass and have been able to install it. The installation is relatively straightforward but does require decisions on your part as to which Web Browser you want to use (Quarterdeck Mosaic is supplied but I use Netscape). You may also need to use Quarterdeck's Winsock if you have any problems using your Internet Provider's Winsock. Winsock could be an entire article in its own right but, simply put, it is a piece of software which connects your Windows Internet applications to the Net, usually via a communications protocol known as TCP/IP. Its name means, literally, Windows Socket. Enough of that!

Start your WebCompass. You get a flashy-looking Splash-screen (the screen that displays to identify the application and to disguise the length of time it is taking for the application to load) plus a brief appearance of a screen which announces that Quarterdeck WebServer is loading. Finally, WebCompass will load the browser you specified during installation. The browser will load the WebCompass Introductory page which represents your first actual connection with the Web. Click on the WebCompass graph (or the word "here" in the text) to proceed to the WebCompass Home Page. This may sound rather involved but, in fact, its sequential nature makes it relatively straightforward.

The WebCompass Home Page is quite pretty but, as I mentioned before, is not very intuitive. There is no page title and the large header image (mainly consisting of a planet made of what looks like green cheese) contains embedded words (such as "resources," "agent," "topics," etc.) which turn out to be hyperlinks to other pages. This is something you find out by reading the manual or, if you're recklessly adventurous, by random mouseclicks. Anyway, this is also the place where you perform simple searches so, ignoring all the gobbledygook about Agents and Active Topics, look at the line immediately under the header graphic. This should start "Find documents related to," followed by a Search Box, followed by the word "using," followed by a drop-down box containing resource types, followed by the words "by pressing" followed by a button marked "Search."

Make sure that "General Resources" is selected in the Resources box, and enter Gettysburg in the Search box. This is the exercise suggested in the manual so let's stick with it. Now click on the Search button. Your disk drive will likely indicate that something is going on, and (hopefully) WebCompass will take you to the Search Results page which will inform you that (in my instance) that it found 69 documents containing a reference to Gettysburg. It goes on to inform you that 10 documents were found by InfoSeek, 10 by AltaVista, 26 by WebCrawler, etc.

Below that, it actually lists the documents from each resource, each document having a checkbox next to it to allow you to link it with the topic—in this case, Gettysburg. You can also proceed to any document by clicking on its name; WebCompass automatically creates you a hypertext link.

Note that the first time I tried this, WebCompass returned no results at all. It turned out that there are a set of timers in WebCompass that stop searches after a time interval is passed and this is set by default to 10 seconds. The guys at Quarterdeck probably have ISDN direct connection to the Web but for us dial-ups (most of you, I'm sure) not much happens in 10 seconds. Upping the time-out to one minute allowed WebCompass to complete all its searches and return results. You may need to experiment with this.

By itself, this is pretty cool. You can add additional resources and WebCompass supplies a number of specialized resources plus its 40,000 topic data base.

To monitor topics on an ongoing basis, you need to turn on the "Agent." To do this, click the icon labeled "Start, the Agent is Off." The Agent is started and the icon changes to "Stop, the Agent is On." (Devilishly clever, these Quarterdeck folks.) WebCompass will now automatically track, organize and summarize any active topics you may have selected. The process of activating and manipulating a topic is described in the manual; detailing it here would make this article rather long. Once a topic is activated, however, you can examine its documents or look at short summaries produced by WebCompass itself (more signs of the AI background). You can build a hierarchy of related documents and assign degrees of relevance to each by a process WebCompass calls "voting." You can assign key words to assist you in finding information at a later time. If you do research on specified topics or are just interested in keeping track, these facilities are really impressive.

Once you get used to the interface, WebCompass is quite simple to use, especially for straightforward searches. Moreover, most people have certain things on the Web that they keep an eye on and WebCompass is a great tool for continuous monitoring. All in all, with its price tag of less than $50, WebCompass is a worthwhile addition to your Internet arsenal. For a while you could try it for free from Quarterdeck's Web site but they seem to have terminated that capability. The site does, however, provide additional information on WebCompass (including a Beta copy of their 2.0 release available for download) and lots of sales information on Quarterdeck's other products.

John Mather is President of Winformation Software, which markets Appeal, a Windows data base utilizing Winformation's revolutionary AutoRelational technology. Appeal combines the power of Relationality with unprecedented ease of use.