Microsoft Closes the Book on Encarta
Microsoft will shut down its Encarta online encyclopedia on Oct. 31. That move will end one of the Redmond, Wash., software firm's most ambitious ventures into digital publishing -- and mark one of the most dramatic victories of user-generated content over traditional, top-down media.
For those younger readers who may be saying "Encart-what?" and searching their memories for recollections of such a thing, Encarta began life in the mid-1990s as a slick, multimedia-rich database program on a CD. For a while, it was many people's favorite example of the medium that my editor at the time called the "coffee-table CD-ROM." An April 25, 1997 review in The Post warmly complimented Encarta: "The sheer elegance of the program and interface, its breadth and (at least most of the time) depth, its consistently wise use of multimedia -- all set a pace that its competitors scramble to meet."
By the end of that decade, Microsoft had begun to move this encyclopedia to the Web, providing a $50/year "deluxe" edition and a condensed, free version. I tried out the latter in August of 1999 and wrote:
The concise edition is handy for many of those head-scratchers that come up at work and at home; searches run quickly, and the short articles that result are good at conveying basic knowledge in a hurry. But the text is inadequately hyperlinked, with shortcuts to some articles but not others. And the selection of free versus pay content is odd; a short essay on the space shuttle is free, while an entry on the Apollo program is not. Bookmark this, but don't leave out its competitor, Encyclopedia.com.
Can I take that last sentence back?
I did not know, nor would I have imagined, that Encarta's toughest competitor wouldn't be Encyclopedia.com, Britannica.com, or any other commercial product, but the entirely volunteer-written Wikipedia.
It wasn't until four years later that I barely remembered to cram a passing reference to "an evolving 'free content' project, Wikipedia.org," into a review of digital encyclopedias that I was editing. The Post's second reference to Wikipedia didn't appear until a year after that, when my old colleague Leslie Walker devoted an entire column to that site's rise.
The rest, as they say, is history. And now, so is Encarta... as duly noted in Wikipedia's entry on it.
Have you used Encarta any time lately? Do you have any old Encarta CDs or DVDs gathering dust in a bookshelf somewhere? Share your recollections in the comments -- and talk about what online reference you now use in its place.
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