Robert McHenry: Encarta, R.I.P.

Roundup: Talking About History

In the wake of the news that Encarta, Microsoft’s electronic encyclopedia, is to be euthanized, the question of the day seems to be, Is Wikipedia to be blamed or thanked?

This assumes that Wikipedia had anything to do with it, an assumption that many observers and futurepundits are very, very eager to make.

In the comments a fellow named Tom Corddry, who says he ran the Encarta project at the beginning, makes a case for the respectability of his product. It’s mainly an engineer’s case – the core Funk & Wagnalls text, he claims, was superior for the purpose to Britannica’s because it was “more nearly ‘structured data’.” The whiff of sour grapes may or may not be in my imagination, but the memory of Dick Martin pronouncing “Funk & Wagnalls” is certainly not. As a matter of fact, Britannica’s text was very well structured and, in addition, it contained more than a million internal indexing links that had been created, not by an algorithm that could not distinguish homographs or different senses of a word, but by indexers who knew to distinguish the relevant from the superficial.

What is perhaps not so fondly remembered about Encarta is that originally it was given away. The marketing strategy was obvious: Sell someone a computer with a “free” encyclopedia already installed, and they will be far less likely to purchase any other encyclopedia. Low quality is always a weak argument against “free.”

It is true that later on, in order to support the idea of charging money for the thing, Encarta did hire competent editors (one or two from Britannica, as I recall) and actually created an editorial process. But it had serious flaws. In 1996 a little essay on the Encarta process was published widely over Bill Gates’ signature. It was called “‘Reality’ Can Get Subjective.” In it, “Gates” discussed how international versions of Encarta were being created for different markets. He gave this example:

“Did Thomas Edison invent the incandescent light bulb? Or was it Sir Joseph Swan?”

Encarta’s answer was to credit Edison in the U.S. version (and not even mention Swan) while adding an article on Swan to the British version and giving him equal credit. This was said to “reflect a slightly different reality.” If it reflected anything, it reflected an unseriousness about the enterprise. (I wrote a critique of the “Gates” piece; it (”The Microsoft Way”) can be found here.)

It must be admitted that Wikipedia has improved upon the model, by allowing competing “realities” to battle it out right in the text, with all the world watching, until some moderator calls a halt and issues a request for the “neutral point of view,” whatever that may be.

But I come to bury Encarta, not Wikipedia. Like many others of its sideline and ultimately abandoned products, Encarta was never anything to Microsoft but a tool. It turns out to be one they just don’t need anymore.

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