Help Yourself The latest generation of multimedia software provides the tools and the tutoring to help you do just about anything.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – As any Saturday morning visit to Home Depot makes clear, the American do-it-yourself tradition is alive and well. That's true in the software business, too. When affordable PCs equipped with speakers, CD-ROM drives, and graphics processors appeared a few years ago, they brought a flood of multimedia software aimed at the home and family market. One could design a kitchen, improve typing skills, and cook like a three-star chef--all with the hassle-free assistance of a virtual tutor. The age of self-help software had arrived.

Since then, brutal competition for retail shelf space and a shakeout in the multimedia software industry have weeded out the shovelware in favor of a tighter selection of more useful and compelling products. The best entries don't merely translate how-to books into a point-and-click format. Rather, they combine graphics, text, sound, and interactivity in unprecedented ways that make learning and doing a bit more fun.

Some of them teach skills, like foreign languages or speed reading. Others help users perform jobs hitherto reserved for experts, such as designing a house or a landscape plan. Still others provide templates and expert guidance for creating special documents like a family tree or a will. Nearly all of these self-empowering programs ship on one or more CD-ROMs, so the sheer quantity of their content is impressive. Some of them augment their out-of-the-box resources by linking to dedicated sites on the World Wide Web.


Foreign-language instruction is an ideal application for multimedia software. Few working professionals have the time for total-immersion courses, and those once-a-week university extension classes, where much of your time is spent listening to equally inept classmates murder the tongue, can produce more frustration than proficiency. How much nicer to sit before a multimedia PC and learn at your own pace, from native speakers who never grow tired of repetition.

One of the more attractive language packages on the market is the Learn to Speak series first developed by Hyperglot. In a sequence that has typified the multimedia market in the 1990s, Hyperglot was acquired by The Learning Company, which was acquired by Softkey International, which then changed its name to The Learning Company. But never mind--these are still effective programs for beginning-to-intermediate-level students of French, German, Spanish, and Japanese. Priced at $79.95, all Learn to Speak titles are available in Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Macintosh versions. One cool feature--an interactive speech-recognition engine that grades your pronunciation--works only on Windows machines.

Learn to Speak French, par example, opens with enticing images of Parisian landmarks and impressionist paintings, accompanied by music that makes you want to take a stroll along the Seine; you can almost smell the vin rouge. Clicking on a menu calls up sections organized by various day-to-day conversational needs--greeting strangers, asking for directions, hailing a taxi--each with vocabulary, dialogue, and quizzes attuned to your fluency level. Recording and playing your voice juxtaposed with those of native speakers helps improve your pronunciation and accent.

These programs, as the series title implies, aim to teach you to speak a new language--not necessarily how to read great literature in the original or master the finer points of grammar. With diligence, though, you should be able to handle the basics of your chosen language in everyday situations.


One of the earliest self-teaching programs was Speed Reader from educational-software publisher Davidson & Associates (now a wholly owned subsidiary of CUC International). The current edition of this classic, called Ultimate Speed Reader, is available for Mac, Windows 3.1, or Windows 95 systems for around $30. Although the techniques it promotes are better applied to the newspaper than to Proust, Speed Reader is a perennial best-seller with obvious relevance in the Information Age.

Ultimate Speed Reader teaches users how to move their eyes more efficiently down the page and to take full advantage of peripheral vision. The CD-ROM software contains more than 200 reading passages on various subjects; you can also import your own text from outside sources. Many of the timed exercises have an arcade game-like quality to them that makes the drills pleasantly diverting. A recent update shows users how to plow through loads of E-mail in record time. Davidson's extensive collection of self-help titles for adults also includes programs for brushing up on math, English grammar and vocabulary, touch-typing, chess, and resume preparation.


Since its founding in 1992, Books That Work has established a reputation for bringing thoughtful, well- executed interactive content and programming to the field of home improvement. Its first product, called 3D Deck, became a model of what multimedia PCs could do. Now in its third edition, the $29.95 program (available on CD for Windows 95 only) combines a powerful computer-aided design engine with a database of building materials to allow users to design their own decks. Once you've designed your multilevel masterpiece, you can view it in photo realistic 3-D graphics, watch an animated construction sequence, then print out detailed plans and a shopping list of materials.

Books That Work also developed similar programs on home repair, electrical wiring, landscaping, and home design. Then it, too, became a casualty of consolidation as it was acquired by Sierra On-Line, which was in turn gobbled up by CUC. Sierra On-Line had a program called CustomHome 3D that competed with Books That Work's Visual Home. The two have been combined to create a new product called Complete- Home, a home-planning bundle that integrates Books That Work's Home Improvement Encyclopedia, 3D Deck, and an Electrical Wiring guide. Priced at $49.95 (CD-ROM for Windows 95 only), the software package is a good value.

While 3D Deck is aimed at true build-it-yourselfers, CompleteHome is primarily a planning tool; it generates floor plans and an attractive three-dimensional rendering of your proposed home, not professional blueprints. The product lets you assemble rooms on screen and fill them with realistic furnishings and appliances. The program's database contains 250 complete house plans and renderings that can be customized. You can then take a virtual walk on-screen through the 3-D rendering of your dream house.


Exploring roots is the goal of Broderbund Software's Family Tree Maker. Built upon a customized database, this genealogy program provides users with templates for filling in names and dates, an image-capture feature for importing photos into a multimedia scrapbook, and a large collection of fonts and forms for printing heirloom-quality results.

Family Tree Maker Standard Edition III ($54.99 for Windows only; other editions available for the Macintosh) comes with four CD-ROM disks crammed with data. Two disks contain birth, death, marriage, and census references to 130 million Americans dating back to the 1600s; the other two CDs include a database of Social Security death records for 55 million people who died between 1937 and 1996. Family Tree Maker's companion Website, accessible through hot links in the software, offers a wealth of additional online resources for genealogical research.


If you are more concerned about your descendants than your forebears, consider a program from Berkeley, Calif.-based Nolo Press called WillMaker. Now in its sixth version for Windows and Macintosh, WillMaker is such an easy-to-use program that users may never need to look at the manual.

WillMaker begins its refreshingly painless routine with a few introductory questions. Then it follows a customized track that conforms to your specific needs. The program prompts you to name primary and backup guardians for minor children, to appoint an executor, and to create a letter to the executor outlining his or her duties. Once you've answered all the questions, WillMaker weaves your answers into a will that's legally valid in any state. You'll probably have the document in your hand within an hour of installing the program.

For people with larger estates who want to avoid the costs and delays of probate, another Nolo program called Living Trust Maker applies the same Socratic method to generating a standard living trust. As in WillMaker, the program shows you where you are in the process and offers both legal and program-related help at each step along the way. Once you've completed and signed the document, Nolo's electronic lawyer tells you how to transfer ownership of your property into your living trust. It even tells you when to call in a real attorney.

Another Nolo antidote to procrastination is Personal RecordKeeper 4.0, which helps you create electronic records of insured property, credit-card numbers, investments, deeds, and tax records. The program can generate reports on home inventory or net worth, and it can import or export data from financial programs such as Quicken. Unlike WillMaker, however, Personal RecordKeeper does not come with Nolo's most light-hearted offering: the Ultimate Lawyer Joke Collection.