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Tales In Tech History: Microsoft Encarta

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Microsoft Encarta started life as a CD-ROM based digital multimedia encyclopedia, but the Web eventually led to its demise

Microsoft Encarta was a forerunner of Wikipedia, and for 16 years it was a mainstay of Microsoft’s portfolio.

Early versions of the digital multimedia encyclopedia were only available on CD-ROMs and DVDs, but from the year 2000 Microsoft began offering Encarta content on the web as well.

Yet the Internet also changed the way people consumed and needed information typically found in encyclopedias, and nine years later Microsoft called time on its classroom staple.

Encarta

 

Modern Encyclopedia

Prior to the Internet, paper-based encyclopedias were the traditional way of storing information

These paper-based encyclopedias were usually expensive – and took up a whole bookshelf – but Microsoft in the 1990s had seen the potential offered by the personal computer, and it recognised there was potential for multimedia and being able to access information in both classrooms, offices, and homes.

Indeed, it is reported that as far back as 1985, Bill Gates had envisioned a CD-ROM encyclopedia that would be as profitable to Microsoft as Word or Excel. But there were problems.

First off, Microsoft had a hard time convincing book publishers that people would ever want to access information on a computer. Indeed, Microsoft apparently tried unsuccessfully to license rights to Encyclopedia Britannica’s text. Another problem was that many PCs of that time often did not have sound or video capabilities.

Yet Microsoft overcame those hurdles with its multimedia CD-ROMs, which were essentially websites minus the web. Microsoft had already noted the success of Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia (released in 1989) and The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (released in 1992).

Microsoft Encarta

And thus it was determined to get in on the action and in 1993 it initiated Encarta (a name created by an advertising agency), under the internal codename “Gandalf”.

Microsoft overcame the problem with book publishers when it finally found a willing licensor in Funk & Wagnalls. Redmond ended up buying the non-exclusive rights to the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, and incorporated it into its first edition in 1993 which sold for $395.

Compton and Grolier however immediately dropped the price of their multimedia encyclopedias, and Microsoft soon followed suit and began selling Encarta for just $99. Microsoft also sometimes bundled Encarta with the purchase of new PCs, in an effort to secure market share.

It should be noted that Funk & Wagnalls continued to publish revised editions for several years after the release of Encarta, but then ceased printing its own version in the late 1990s.

Later in the 1990s, Microsoft added content from Collier’s Encyclopedia and New Merit Scholar’s Encyclopedia (Macmillan) into Encarta after purchasing them. Often these rival encyclopedias would ceased publishing as Microsoft came to dominate multimedia encyclopedias and began offering versions of Encarta in different languages.

The Internet

But Microsoft’s domination was not to last, as in the mid to late 1990s, the widespread take-up of the Internet began in earnest. This changed the way people needed to access and consume information.

In an effort to mitigate this, Microsoft in 2000 opened up the full Encarta content on the World Wide Web to Encarta subscribers (a subset of this data was available for free to anyone).

But people began asking why they should go to the expense of purchasing Microsoft’s Encarta, when they could instead just use Google to find the required information.

Microsoft Encarta was also now competing with another rival other than the Internet, namely Wikipedia, which was launched in January 2001. Like the Internet in general, this was free of charge and allowed for users to generate copy to expand its content.

The writing was on the wall therefore, and by 2006 Websters Multimedia, a Washington subsidiary of London-based Websters International Publishers, took over maintenance of Encarta from Microsoft.

Microsoft’s enthusiasm for Encarta was at an end, and it released its last ever version (Encarta Premium 2009) in August 2008.

The final nail in Encarta’s coffin came in April 2009 when Microsoft announced it would cease to sell all editions of Encarta Premium software products worldwide by June 2009.

By the end of 2009 it had also closed down all the MSN Encarta websites. For those of a nostalgic nature, a video of the intro of Microsoft Encarta (circa 1995) can be found here.

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