RIP Encarta

The news came as I happened to be finishing up a visit to the Wikimedia Foundation offices in San Francisco. Jay Walsh told it to me: Microsoft is closing Encarta down.

Wow. I had to say I was a bit surprised. Not shocked but surprised.

When I got a look at Microsoft’s announcement it was classic: generically non-useful public relations boilerplate:

Why are these Encarta Web sites and software products being discontinued?

Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.
Microsoft’s vision is that everyone around the world needs to have access to quality education, and we believe that we can use what we’ve learned and assets we’ve accrued with offerings like Encarta to develop future technology solutions. In doing so, we feel strongly that we are making the right investments that will help make our vision a reality. [link]

But everyone could see the elephant in the room — Wikipedia obliterated the need for anything like Encarta’s paid firewall encyclopedia online.

If you look back to a previous post in January, you’ll see that Wikipedia had 97% of the online encyclopedia traffic, and the rest shared 3%. Ouch.

Now why was I surprised?

Because Microsoft could have kept it going indefinitely, given its cash pile and the “Windows Tax” paying for everything. With this being such a prominent example of “free” trumping commercial and proprietary, I do wonder if this makes for a victory that might give spiritual comfort to others in the free culture movement. What’s next in Microsoft vs Linux, Microsoft vs OpenOffice, MPEG vs Ogg and other battles?

Interestingly, Encarta was a product that was always meant to be a throw-in: a me-too product that enticed consumers as part of the Microsoft suite when buying a Dell or Gateway PC. It was never destined to be a standalone moneymaker. Add to this, the fact that Bill Gates founded Corbis as a photo and video archive, and bought the prized Bettmann Archives, and Encarta suddenly had a wealth of visual multimedia features. Its rich interactive features were far ahead of others, and it had rights to the most important historical photos of the last century. It was more a showcase than a business. It was an old school model in a new media world.

It’s not that Encarta didn’t try to change.

In March 2005, Microsoft tried installing wiki-like features by soliciting input from the readers (p 204, from The Wikipedia Revolution):

“We’re about to roll out a new set of tools that will make it far easier for you to suggest revisions in Encarta. By the time of our next post, we should have the new tools up and running, and we’ll be looking to you to help us help you.”

If you have never heard of the Encarta Feedback function, it’s with good reason. It never developed much beyond the public announcement. The Encarta staff produced a  six- month report with a sample of the types of feedback they were getting, but the last mention of Encarta Feedback was on their blog on September 28, 2005. Today most links to this feature are defunct, without a trace of this  wiki- like experiment on Encarta’s pages.

It’s important to note that the bells and whistles of the visually rich Encarta didn’t win out in the end. It was the instantly updated, always available free content of Wikipedia that grabbed eyeballs and links. All that resulted in sky high Google rankings. And because it was free, it could be molded to fit mobile devices, translated to other languages and be adapted for the end user.

Add it to the case studies of yore: 8-track vs cassette; Digital Audio Tape vs MiniDisc; Beta vs VHS. The lesson? High fidelity rarely wins out with consumers. It’s all about convenience, availability and ease of use.

There is a loss to the world with the absence of Encarta’s historic images. Because Wikipedia has a strict “free” edict on content, especially images and multimedia, it will always be at a disadvantage in having visuals that are unique and under copyright protection. For that, the community will have to wait until copyright runs out on those materials. Technology may be fast, but that’s one area that will be slow.

Oh, and by the way: no surprise, the Wikipedia article [[Encarta]] has already been updated to reflect its passing, likely by a very smug, grinning editor.

16 thoughts on “RIP Encarta

  1. Andrew, I’m a little surprised you didn’t point out the “worse-is-better” dynamic here, that a worse — but adequate — product can enter a market, steal market share & from a growing revenue its owners can improve it. The same dynamic described in the book “The Tipping Point.”

    It’s the same dynamic which helped Microsoft undercut better products & gain dominance in their chosen markets. One could say Microsoft had the tables turned on them.


  2. “Because Wikipedia has a strict “free” edict on content, especially images and multimedia, it will always be at a disadvantage in having visuals that are unique and under copyright protection.”

    I disagree: for unique and educationally important copyright protected content, we invoke the fair use doctrine in a clean manner, appropriating the content for Wikipedia. Commercial projects are not as willing to do that; it is they who are at a disadvantage.

  3. Axel, good hearing from you. I’m wondering if you can expand on that a bit. When you say “we” do you mean a specific community? All? de, or en? In the English language Wikipedia, there has been a major swing away from exerting fair use. The problem of course with fair use is that it’s all case law, so you press your case until you get pushback. As such, putting fair use images into Wikipedia when it comes to putting it in other forms outside the US.

  4. Geoff, re: “worse is better” I think that’s an interesting point, and definitely reminds me of my old comp sci days. I suppose I’m reluctant to use that specifically because the observation was more about software (and not content) and they bring up the point of “correctness” which just get muddied with the issue of encyclopaedic and information reliability. Rather, your point made me remember something else which is much simpler: the idea of “good enough” content being able to usurp “more perfect” paid players.

    Most users of Wikipedia, having experienced its usefulness and content, and knowledgeable about its theoretical drawbacks pretty much come to the same conclusion it seems, as Voltaire: perfect is the enemy of good. Release early, release often, and with flagged revisions, you’ll have a steady march towards perfection.

  5. Andrew, Thanks for snagging and posting my comments. Encarta was actually on both ends of the high fidelity analogy you make: compared to the print encyclopedias in existence when it was first released, Encarta was very cheap, much more up to date, offered much less in the way of quality images, improved rapidly, and in general was the “Wikipedia” of its time. It pretty much beat out the old print model on the same terms that it in turn was bested by Wikipedia. I wonder what will come along to replace Wikipedia?

  6. Pingback: » Microsoft Closes Encarta, But this Doesn’t Have to be the End The Wikipedian

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