This week has seen Microsoft confirm that it plans to discontinue its Encarta Encyclopaedia product, acknowledging what everybody else has known for years, Encarta couldn’t match the collaborative effort of Wikipedia.
"Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopaedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business."
Before we all rejoice with Microsoft bashing, let’s stop, and give some credit to Microsoft Encarta. Encarta bettered the Encyclopaedia Britannica and gave us the world’s first truly global encyclopaedia with consistent entries with a high level of quality and accuracy across a broad range of topics. Encarta pretty much killed off print encyclopaedias too - before Wikipedia came along.
The internet has changed reference materials and the role of encyclopaedias, with Wikipedia, our well loved collaborative tool, providing and unrivalled depth and scope of coverage.
Wikipedia being a classic example of the strengths of open versus closed systems and of course the "Long Tail.” In 2005 Wikipedia offered more than 1 million articles in English - compared to Britannica’s 80,000 and Encarta’s 36,000 - Wikipedia has since experienced exponential growth with 0.01% of Wikipedia users (75,000) contributing to and generating over 10million articles.
One of my favourite Encarta v Wikipedia tales is written by Clay Shirky in his 2008 book "Here comes everybody"...
"When the managers at Encarta, saw the excitement around Wikipedia, they offered Encarta users the ability to perform a similar service for Encarta. The resulting problem was neither the promise or the tool: Wikipedia had shown that people are more than willing to contribute to online reference works, and that the tools are available to do so at low cost and large scale. What doomed the Encarta's effort to minor status was its bargain with users: users had to grant Microsoft permission to "use, copy, distribute, transmit, publically display, publically perform, reproduce, edit, modify, translate, and reformat your submission" for a product Microsoft was going to charge money for. This was hardly a bargain at all, as all the power lay with Microsoft, a fact that made the option for user contribution largely irrelevant. Encarta talked the same basic talk, but the details of the bargain, including its tone, undermined the possibility of any large scale recruitment.”
Encarta has had its day, and whilst it’s great to celebrate the "Wisdom of Crowds" - I just hope that Microsoft releases its reference and research for utilisation by Wikipedia (& Knol) and that we, as an online community, can strive to make Wikipedia an even more accurate resource tool.