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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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 31, 2009; 12:42 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The Web  
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Comments

Rob: As the husband of a librarian and father of two high school students and a college student who are told NOT to cite Wikipedia in research papers, I find this a cause for concern. My fond childhood memories of watching in January for the newest World Book update in the mail notwithstanding, I worry about availability of appropriate sources with Encarta gone...will databases and primary sources be all that's left, aside from Wikipedia?

Posted by: howardstuff | March 31, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Wow, until the news that Encarta will be toast, I had forgotten about it completely even though there are several Encarta CDs hanging around our house.

I'm afraid that we will lose the benefit of authoritatve, compiled, reference sources for many topics that have developed in more recent times. Of course, there will be Web-based archives of whatever the "new" original sources are if they are not the traditional original sources.

Posted by: Arlington4 | March 31, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I found Wikipedia surprisingly neutral and informative in postings on the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the circumstances surrounding them. A lot of good research can be done on this site.

Posted by: almarc13 | March 31, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
One to pass on to Seitsema and Krebs, since it's a local story.

Oh, and why is a local story on the intersection of digital fraud and fine dining in Wired, and not the Post?

http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2009/03/washington.html

Posted by: wiredog | March 31, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Wikipedia is free. Who cares if it's authoritative? If you to consult an authority, pay him ...

Posted by: jimward21 | March 31, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Wikipedia has its faults,and there are many, but as a source of introductory data on almost any subject, it also has many merits, not least of which is its service as a readily accessible introduction to almost anything. I do not trust it, but neither do I pass over it, since it invariably leads to additional information in other sources. Use it cautiously, as one would any source, including the Post,and one can eventually come upon a reasonable explanation of most of our confusing world.

I have Britannica, and an old OED as well, but they are more cumbersome to manipulate.

Posted by: Geezer4 | March 31, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

==============
==============
Of COURSE you shouldn't cite Wikipedia in academic research! That's not what it's for. Wikipedia is a way to UNDERSTAND something, quickly and deeply.

It's for personal use, to get the background on a science article in the paper, or something you saw on the news. For that matter, I wish I had it when I was 12, to answer my questions about sex.

However it was never warranted to be error-free, and no one should expect it to be.

But having said that, aside from deliberate vandelism (blanking whole pages, adding meaningless "bathroom"-type graffiti), in the 1,000+ Wikipedia articles I've edited (and far more articles I've merely read), I have NEVER seen a factual error in a subject I know a lot about.

If someone ever inserted his crackpot opinion into the article on Special Relativity, it was deleted before I ever saw it. Garbage is usually removed within 20 minutes because people with an interest in certain articles are very protective of them and have the system notify them of any changes.

Don't rag on Wikipedia because it's not authoritative enough for citation. That's like getting mad at the cat because she's not a dog.

--faye kane, homeless brain.
Read more of my smartmouth opinions at http://tinyurl.com/fayescave

Posted by: FayeKane_HomelessSmartypants | March 31, 2009 10:18 PM | Report abuse

I loved Encarta, and it was a nice DVD to have for my daughter as she advanced through school.

Wikipedia is not fun at all, from the dry tone assumed by contributers to the uninteresting interface and limited multimedia experience.

Sigh. All things must pass, but I don't have to like it!

Posted by: Cyberia | April 1, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I wish this were another April fools article, but it's not wild enought.

Posted by: Cyberia | April 1, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

This brings back memories of when Encarta was new and fresh and exciting...so much information easily accessible at my fingertips. How many people remember a time, really not that long ago, when information was not as easy to access as it is today?

Posted by: Ken_G | April 1, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

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