One of the tech world's older sources of knowledge, Microsoft Encarta, dates back to the pre-Internet '80s. And now it's dead. The company itself announced the fate of the now online encyclopedia. The look-up service will end on October 31. Immediately after MSFT's Monday announcement, partisans of Wikipedia, which basically killed Encarta, began clamoring for its archives to be donated to the non-profit people's encyclopedia. Wait, Microsoft should begin giving away information for free? Just like us newspapers? That doesn't make much sense.
Encarta has recently been a subscription component of MSN; it's also sold in stores (or will be, until June). Long ago, circa 1989, it came on CD-ROM discs--back when Windows 1.0 ran on green-and-black PC screens, the way God intended. (I briefly worked in the field back then, so forgive a little nostalgia.) And however much we love to bash Microsoft, its products are put together by professionals. One of them, commenting on a New York Times account, has some thoughtful words--call it a eulogy, even--after the jump...
Commenting on the NYT report of Encarta's death, a member of the original development team, Tom Corddry, responds:
"By the standards of the print encyclopedia world, Microsoft invested heavily in expanding and updating the content of Encarta right from the beginning. We consciously invested in the contextual value just described, in expanding the core content, in creating the world's first truly global encyclopedia, and in an efficient update cycle. We had enough "multimedia" in the original product to keep the reviewers happy, but focused on the overall usefulness of the whole product much more than on the relative handful of video clips, etc. I'd argue that within its first five years, Encarta became the best encyclopedia in history..."
Links, photos, multimedia... it sounds a lot like the Internet before the Internet existed. In fact, thinking back to my own CD-ROM development experience in New York (for the wonderfully named company Facts on File), what Corddry describes sounds a lot like the Internet today. Or would, if Wikipedia and its ilk were put together by professionals who could spell and weren't so concerned with petty ideological agendas and TV trivia.
Over at TechFlash, Todd Bishop reports further on the fate of the Encarta archive. MSFT spokespeople tell him the company likely won't give away the archives for free, but will try to find some further (profitable) use for them. Which is surely what shareholders expect. Wikipedia doesn't have to worry about wasting people's money, because it essentially has none. But it's fast, immediate, and free, which one has to weigh against sloppiness and outright falsehoods.
If Wikipedia is like a blog, the first draft for something more substantial, Encarta is (was) the more edited final product, the result of having a second (or even third) set of eyes on the copy. Some might argue that that editorial review process takes too long, that Wikipedia and Google respond better to our insatiable need for instant information. But archives and editing are inherently slow. Regardless of its financial model for Encarta, Microsoft could never hope to be as swift as the Wikipedia army in updating, say, the entry for Lindsay Lohan following her most recent coke bust.
The speed of information is free on the Internet, and people seem unwilling to pay for accuracy. Or, to again quote (former?) Microsoftee developer Corddry, "I don't think that Wikipedia by itself killed Encarta. I think the Web as a whole made Encarta obsolete."