Saturday, April 04, 2009

Encarta Dies

Earlier this week Microsoft announced that they were closing the Encarta encyclopedia operation. There is a write up on this news on the NYTimes Bits blog but I thought more interesting that that post was comment by Tom Corddry who worked on the Encarta team from the beginning. His self described 'grave side toast' is as follows:

I ran the team that created Encarta, so I’m standing up to say a few awkward words at its graveside memorial service. Encarta, may it rest in peace, deserves to be remembered more for its quality than you suggest. Your sources repeat several notions that were never true of Encarta-first, that the content from Funk and Wagnall’s was “low quality” compared to Britannica, and second that the value added by Microsoft was primarily “graphics and sound.” The text from Funk and Wagnall’s was far superior to Britannica’s as a starting point for a digital encyclopedia, because it was much more nearly “structured data,” meaning that the architecture of the text was very consistent from one article to the next. This allowed us to add a lot of “contextual” value–to compute the relatedness of every article to every other article, and build what was at the time a uniquely useful set of links and navigational tools across the entire content. Britannica, by contrast, was a bloated mishmash, a consequence of its long tradition of having articles written by many different celebrity authors. (I ghost-wrote one myself, in fact). 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: it had tremendously consistent quality and usefulness across a very broad range of topics, and added a great deal of value by the relationships it illuminated between topics. All of that has been rendered a bit quaint now, but in it’s day it was an accomplishment worthy of a graveside toast. Encarta had more than “the potential” to unsettle the print encyclopedia business–it pretty much destroyed it. Print encyclopedias were dead, thanks to Encarta, before Wikipedia existed. We expected from the beginning that Encarta would eventually be superceded by online information-seeking. As brilliant as Wikipedia is, I don’t think that Wikipedia by itself killed Encarta. I think the Web as a whole made Encarta obsolete. I hope treasured old copies of Encarta will live on for a while in remote corners of the world, where people have scattered access to computers but little or no connection to the Web–school libraries in Africa, for example. In those places, even out-of-date copies of African Encarta, the only Encyclopedia of Africa ever published, will live on, and Joe Biden will forever be newly-elected. I’ll drink to that.

—Tom Corddry
In answer to several comments in reaction to this statement he has some further comments as well.

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