If the computer age is also the information age, why is using your computer to get information so difficult? There are vast libraries of business information available that you should be able to access to look up articles about an ally or competitor, find patents, or extract financial data about a company.

But there are two problems. First, the service is expensive. An hour on Dialog, Dow Jones News/Retrieval, or Nexis can easily cost the user $100. Second, the services are difficult to use. To extract information, you have to master an arcane command language of a type that disappeared long ago from other computer software.

Fortunately there is relief, in the form of microcomputer software that lets you develop search criteria in a relatively straightforward way and automatically translate your search request into a set of commands for the information service.

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* For Dialog information service, Pro-Search presents a menu-driven interface on your microcomputer ($295 for Macintosh, $495 for IBM PC from Personal Bibliographic Software, 313-996-1580). You create a search within Pro-Search and connect to Dialog only after you have created a query. You'll save money by only being connected to Dialog for a minimal length of time.

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* For Nexis, the business information software from Mead Data Central, News Plus ($50 for IBM PC, from Mead, 800-541-6886 or 513-865-6800) works in a similar way.

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* For Dow Jones News/
there is NewsReal ($179 for IBM PC, FNN Data Broadcasting Corp., 800-433-7068). Unfortunately, this is most useful for getting current national business news in a few dozen broad areas, so to use Dow Jones News/Retrieval more thoroughly, you'll still have to learn the command language. -- Cary Lu