Encarta Didn’t Fail – the Web Did

When I first started using Microsoft Encarta back in the 1990s, it was absolutely cutting edge. Of course, Encarta did not live on the Web at that point and was installed locally on our home computer. imageIt was around 2003 or so that I started finding other Encarta-like sources that existed online. In particular, Wikipedia was on the rise. In fact, early 2003 still seems to be the time where Wikipedia was having the largest article increase per day. 

Despite the fact that Wikipedia is now a household name and the definitive source of homework answers around the globe, it really doesn’t compare to the multimedia environment of the software version of Encarta. Encarta brought the encyclopedia to life. Most features are interactive and include audio, video, and animations.

Encarta, in part, was ahead of its time. Wikipedia defaulted back to a mainly text-based encyclopedia, with the primary benefits being that it’s free, “always” current, and editable by any number of people. Of course, the last point is what provided Wikipedia its explosive growth.

With the demise of both Encarta and Wikkia Search, Wikipedia appears set to be the world’s encyclopedia. The reasons might be that Wikipedia has the “right model” but they also relate to the Web’s failings.

More than a decade after Encarta was released, modern browsers still cannot replicate the type of experience created by a 1990s software program. Yes, there is audio and video on the Web but many online multimedia experiences are cobbled together. HTML is still a language that is focused around displaying text. Consider that compared to Microsoft developing a *multimedia *markup language for use in Encarta and other software back in the late 1980s.

Clearly, Encarta has been an alternative to consumers. But it was a choice that required Encarta not to be around when it was most needed. Who wants to fire up a program when researching on the Web? More to the point, who wants to fire up a paid program when researching on the Web?

Even if the software version (not the Web version) of Encarta, could be ported into the browser with all its multimedia glory (which it can’t), unless it was free, there’s a good chance it still would lose to Wikipedia. For example, Wikkia Search’s death is about it not having the traction needed to continue. Is that fallout because it does not have the breadth of Wikipedia content, that people don’t want ads in their encyclopedia, or both?

The “freeness” of Wikipedia suffocated Encarta, as well as Wikkia Search. That, in many ways, leaves us with an inferior product not in terms of the content but in terms of the possibilities. People will continue to settle for some version of granddad’s text-based encyclopedia, just a webinized version of it. Unfortunately, this case is only one small example of how the Web’s democratization and open nature compels people to choose free over better.

The software version Encarta will be on sale through June 2009 and is available on the Encarta site. Buy a copy so you can show future generations, “We gave up Encarta for Wikipedia….Why? Because it was free!”