Microsoft kills Encarta: Is society getting dummer?

  • Chicago (IL) - Microsoft's Encarta finally lost the battle to Wikipedia and Internet in general. One of the best-known flagship entertainment titles from the Redmond-based software giant will soon be a goner. After sixteen years of existence (1993), Microsoft's decided to pull the plug on Encarta interactive software and shut down the accompanying online Encarta edition. Though the door has closed, in reality it hardly comes as a surprise. Encarta was faced with Wikipedia, Google's search engine and several online business models that predominantly lure users with free premium content.

    [Editor's note: The title is purposefully incorrect.]

    A quiet note slipped through on the MSN Encarta web site, one basically spelling death for Microsoft's flagship encyclopedia. "The category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed," Microsoft wrote. "People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past."

    As a result, online Encarta will shut down globally on October 31, 2009 -- except for the Japanese version, which will be taken down on December 31, 2009. Encarta Premium subscribers will be refunded for fees paid beyond April 30, 2009. Encarta software will be removed from store shelves by June of this year, but it will keep technical support for the product for three years.

    Some of our younger audience may wonder why all the fuss? For the rest of us who fondly remember our computing in the early 90s, Encarta holds a special place in our hearts. It was our first mapping program in the days when there was no Google Earth. The search feature exposed us to Encarta's vast knowledge database long before Google's search engine was even a concept scribbled down on napkins over dinner. And yes, by playing on the human's thirst for knowledge, Encarta did its part in turning computers into a valuable learning resource. In short, Encarta is one of the most famous and longest-standing interactive knowledge resources ever.

    The software peaked in popularity during the mid-90s, when advent of optical media and CD-ROM drives for computers provided software makers with previously unheard of storage capacity (650 MB when most hard drives were below 200 MB as this was long before perpendicular hard drive storage technology).

    Developers both big and small flocked to take advantage of the 650 MB optical medium, resulting in perhaps the biggest explosion of software the industry has ever seen. Microsoft's Encarta has been the first serious piece of software which put those hundreds of megabytes to good use. In a way, you could say that it was the optical medium and Encarta which drove each other to glory.

    Yes kids, there was a time before Google Earth. Many of us used Encarta's (then) revolutionary interactive maps to explore and tour the world virtually. And no, it didn't have a satellite view. ["The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth", right Christian? -Editor]

    Read on the next page:  Encarta vs Internet, Encarta vs Wikipedia, Final thoughts...

    How the Internet challenged Encarta

    As higher-capacity DVDs took over the CD's domain, Encarta also evolved. But a growing popularity of the Internet (and especially the broadband aspects of it) slowly began diminishing consumer's interests in high-quality images, sound and video clips that the CD and DVD Encarta editions offered. We have realized that the Internet already offers equally entertaining, if not informative, multimedia content. Though it'd be unfair to say that Microsoft hasn't tried adapting to new realities. The company unveiled its online Encarta edition that came in two flavors: Free (limited) and paid Premium edition (access all areas).

    Entry-level Encarta editions were continuously bundled with OEM systems to keep buyers interested in the software. The company worked particularly hard to keep Internet generation glued to its online Encarta edition. They offered two free hours of online Encarta by searching "Definition: (word)" on its Live search engine, which provides a link to Encarta Online. The site even enabled user-suggested article changes that Encarta editors reviewed, edited and eventually approved if appropriate.

    Leveraging the Windows Live Messenger platform, Microsoft enabled an Encarta Instant Answers feature that passes multi-lingual queries to the online Encarta engine, relaying answers back as instant messages, though none of this was sufficient to keep Encarta at its former place of respect and glory.

    Over time, the online generation lost interest in favor of new exciting web phenomenons like Google, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook. Despite being online, searchable, discoverable, free (at least some portions of it) and heavily marketed -- users just didn't care any longer. And when Wikipedia stepped into public consciousness, Encarta's days were numbered.

    We were also spellbound by Encarta's great language and translation tools that enabled us to look up a term, definition or even translate words. Today, cloud-based machines translate whole web pages with the click of a button. Oh, how the computer has changed in Encarta's lifetime.

    Wikipedia: The last nail in Encarta's coffin

    It's true that a small portion of users kept buying the Encarta encyclopedia (or subscribing to the online edition), drawn in by its biggest advantages to date: Premium, edited and fact-checked information, vast knowledge resources and useful tools which help put it all in perspective.

    For the vast majority of others, however, they quickly replaced Encarta with Wikipedia's questionable content, sometimes dubious sources and even flatly false facts. And who could blame them? The whole Internet ticks to this business model, one that gives us free premium content. And in return, we give up a bit of our privacy so companies can sell us ads tailored to our online interests. But as long as free, quality content keeps flowing, we're sold.

    Unfortunately, Encarta wasn't free and this fact obviously spelled its doom.

    Conclusion: It's an online world, dumber without Encarta

    I'd rather Microsoft had kept Encarta going -- if not for profits, then to keep the bar high for everyone else in terms of quality, edited, precise and reliable information. Without Encarta, it'll certainly be harder to navigate through this vast and dull online jungle, separating the truth from the lies.

    I just hope that shutting down Encarta won't usher in a new era of global stupidity in which our perception of quality information is skewed by under-educated reality show teenagers, sensational reporting and lazy research that doesn't drill through the often incredible amounts of questionable content floating around in the blogosphere and on Wikipedia before arriving at the true answer.

    Thanks to Encarta, computers were not just dumb terminals anymore. Microsoft's software marked the creation of the education market, turning PCs into a valuable learning tools and great knowledge resources. Today, computers are dumb again because knowledge, teaching tools and learning resources are now found online in often questionable form. Pictured above is Encarta 2009 Premium, the last Encarta edition released in August 2008.

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