death of Encarta

Here’s an interesting article about the shutting down of Encarta, the Microsoft published encyclopedia product, and implications for the media/information/publishing landscape at large.

At first, I thought it was the CD version that was being shut down, but no, it’s the online version; apparently the former, along with many Microsoft Home products (some were classics), had long been discontinued. Incidentally, I’ve used the CD product, but never the online product — I’ve been aware of it because it comes up in searches, but since it’s just the CD version put online, I’m not surprised it is meeting the same fate. It just goes to show that whatever process is driving traditional publishing into the ground is rather far along.

I, for one, still remember paper encyclopedias. For that matter, I still remember when libraries used card catalogues (you pull them out of a small drawer to find the Dewey decimal), but these became extinct at about the same time as the 5.25″ floppy disk. As for encyclopedias, they sat as multivolume collections in the reference section — maybe they still do? Haven’t been to a public library in a long time…

The first CD encyclopedia I remember was Grolier’s. Its selling point was some animations in articles. For a time these encyclopedias were useful for school projects, but by high school they seemed pretty useless — the articles just had too low a signal-to-noise ratio. Maybe they did not provide enough depth, or the short list of references were not adequate, or there was too much fluff that simple queries could not be answered in a well matched way. Often the writers were totally full of themselves, too (reminds me of The end result was these references could neither be used directly (plagiarism aside), nor were the raw data in them easily extractable. I think that’s one reason why I stopped using them, whatever the media encyclopedias came in. The other reason was that such generalist information was not difficult to find on the internet, even without a Wikipedia.

So while the comparison to Wikipedia is appealing as a foil, these products really failed on their own merits: they were generally inadequate and inferior products and they were not even free for being so.* The economic realities of that are only catching up now. And if newspapers follow them there, it would be because newspapers have long become wire service repeaters, not because of the existence of Google News. Interestingly, I haven’t had the interest to subscribe to these newspapers for a long time, either.

* Inferior compared to what, you say. Isn’t it the existence of a “better” alternative that lies at the crux of the matter? Actually, no. The inferiority is measured from the amount of nagging feeling of not having learned much. The reality is, without an alternative, one would just know less and unless effort be expended, be resigned to that… (Economically, of course the existence of an alternative matters, but that’s a separate issue.)


  1. A.G
    March 31st, 2009 | 17:06

    I think it is sad that encarta is being taken away from the internet and libaries. but i think that iits use has been used to its fullest.

  2. RCF
    August 19th, 2009 | 3:14

    It is too bad that encarta is being removed. It was useful for the times I have used it(which is rare), and maybe that is why it is being removed. I understand this inevitable action that Microsoft has taken, but it has made me feel like i have one less reliable source to depend on during those rare moment. Oh well, hopefully Microsoft will create something new and that people will actually utilize more.

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