Microsoft kills Encarta: Is society getting dummer?

Posted by Christian Zibreg

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.


GOOGLE EARTH AS IT ONCE WAS
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.


INTERACTIVE TRANSLATOR
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.


ROMANTIC TIMES
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.