View Full Version : The Death of Encarta

04 May 09,, 02:11

THIS is the end of the line for Encarta, the encyclopedia that Microsoft introduced in 1993 and still describes boastfully on its Web site as “the No. 1 best-selling encyclopedia software brand for the past eight years.” Microsoft recently announced that sales would soon cease and that the Encarta Web site, supported by advertising, would be shut down later this year.

It’s hard to look at the end of the Encarta experiment without the free and much larger Wikipedia springing immediately to mind. But Encarta arguably would have failed even without that competition. The Google-indexed Web forms a virtual encyclopedia that Encarta never had a chance of competing against.

Encarta was conceived pre-Web and had a long gestation. In 1985, Bill Gates envisioned a CD-ROM encyclopedia as a “high-price, high-demand” product with the potential of becoming as profitable to Microsoft as Word or Excel. Microsoft tried unsuccessfully to license rights to Encyclopedia Britannica’s text, then World Book’s. It finally found a willing licensor in Funk & Wagnalls.

Microsoft’s Encarta team concentrated on developing nontext supplements that would make it a multimedia extravaganza. The team developed illustrations and maps, a timeline and an atlas, assembled and wrote captions for 11,000 photographs and digitized eight hours of sound clips.

Early in the project’s history, a focus group of prospective customers was convened, and participants said they would happily pay $1,000 to $2,000 for a multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM. But at the time, no one foresaw the collapse of prices in the information economy. When Encarta was finally ready, Microsoft set its price at $395, the same price as other CD-ROM encyclopedias that had beaten it to the market.

Encarta sold poorly, gaining only 3 percent of the market six months after its release, according to Microsoft. But the leader was Compton’s, which sold its CD-ROM Interactive Encyclopedia, nominally priced at $395, for just $129 to any customer who claimed to own a competing product. Retailers did not ask to see proof, and the boxes flew off the shelf.

Microsoft’s sales managers were frantic, begging the team to give them a “$99 Encarta.” The Encarta team relented, but said it was to be only a temporary reduction for the 1993 holiday sales season. Martin Leahy, a Microsoft sales manager, told any colleague who would listen, “You realize, don’t you, the price is never going up again, right?” It never did.

The $99 Encarta was a smashing success: it quickly sold 350,000 units, making it the best-selling CD-ROM encyclopedia by the end of 1993. Its sales passed a million units the next year.

In 2000, a free Web version, which included less than half the full version, was introduced; to get online access to the complete encyclopedia, one had to buy Encarta on CD-ROM or DVD. Online-only subscription plans came later.

Over time, the price of the product fell even more. Earlier this year, Microsoft sold Encarta as a downloadable product for $29.95; most recently, it was marked down to $22.95.

I contacted some of the people who worked on Encarta during its early days to collect their reflections. Gary Alt, who joined Microsoft in 1995 after working as an editor at World Book and at Encyclopedia Britannica, spoke with pride of the editorial work that he and his Encarta team had done. Fifty people — editors, fact-checkers and indexers — were on the team in 2000, at the peak of Microsoft’s editorial investment in Encarta, he said.

That investment, however, seems to have gone unnoticed by Encarta’s users. Tom Corddry, a senior manager at Microsoft from 1989 to 1996 who headed up its multimedia publishing unit, said, “The editors overestimated the way students would say, ‘This has been carefully edited! And is very authoritative!’”

Encarta would have been discontinued long before now if it hadn’t extended its natural life span by finding a market in international spots beyond the reach of the Internet, Mr. Corddry said. “That bought Encarta some time,” he added.

Encarta could not compete, however, against the Web and Google. The Google search engine is an automated, continuously updated, always-expanding guide to information that is completely free. Authority now comes not from a small group of encyclopedia editors and famous contributors but from Google’s algorithms, which analyze links that point to Web pages elsewhere and other clues to make an educated guess about trustworthiness.

Google has effectively enlisted millions of Web page authors, whose links serve as recommendations for the largest editorial board ever assembled. Many Google search results lead off with a pointer to Wikipedia. The crowd-curated Web may have been what Microsoft had in mind when it vaguely explained Encarta’s closing this way: “People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past.”

IN 1985, when Microsoft was turned down by Britannica, the conventional wisdom in the encyclopedia business held that a sales force that knocked on doors was indispensable, that encyclopedias were “sold, not bought.” Encarta showed that with a low-enough price — it was selling for $99 when Britannica introduced its own CD-ROM encyclopedia in 1994 for $995 — it could become the best-selling encyclopedia.

But the triumph was short-lived. Microsoft soon learned that the public would no longer pay for information once it was available free. Other information businesses, of course, are now confronting the same fact, but without the Windows and Office franchises to fall back upon.

04 May 09,, 03:03
With free Google and Wikipedia that continue to update themselves non-stop, who wants to pay for Encarta.