Microsoft has announced that it’s terminating its encyclopedia effort Encarta after 16 years in the business of collecting and publishing knowledge and historic information. The reasons for Encarta’s doom are obvious: it’s become increasingly technologically irrelevant–in a wonderful parallel to a theory on encyclopedias crafted by sci-fi master Douglas Adams.
On its Encarta website yesterday Microsoft made the announcement that “The category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed […] People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past.” As a result the subscription-based Encarta Web site (which replaced the original CD/DVD interactive editions) will be closed starting October 31 everywhere except Japan, and that site will close December 31. Clearly Microsoft’s done the math and realized that income from its Encarta subscribers isn’t worth the cost of maintaining and developing the site–and Microsoft, prince of all cut-throat businesses, clearly isn’t going to make the service free.
Because there’s a new-technology competitor that’s already successful and free, operating on a totally different model: Wikipedia. While Encarta represented an echo of “traditional” encyclopedias, with episodic releases of editor-based knowledge about certain defined fields that carried the stamp of peer-informed authority, Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and a continual dynamic font of information on almost any fact, fiction, or fantasy you can imagine.
And all this has, rather fabulously, been fictionally foretold by Douglas Adams. Here’s the relevant bits from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “the Hitch Hiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Not only did Adams’ words ring true for Encarta, but even more so for Encyclopedia Britannica–the venerable publication, infinitely more famous than Encarta, that’s been struggling to remain relevant in both published and subscription online versions–but Adams actually went ahead and blazed the trail that Wikipedia has since followed so well. Back in 1999, two years before Wikipedia launched, Adams founded “H2G2.com” (a popular acronym for The Guide) as an online Earth-based Hitchhiker’s Guide clone for facts and musings about life down here. It used a revolutionary back-end code that made its look and feel self-consistent but very flexible, and it was intended to be crowd-sourced, with a core of volunteer editors that effected a degree of management and peer-review. In 2001, hosting of the site passed to the BBC, which maintained it largely as-was.
H2G2 still thrives, but it’s Wikipedia that’s the most famous. Fascinatingly, even Britannica has conceded to the Adams/Wikipedia model recently and announced in January of this year it will accept edits and submissions from the public in an effort for its online version to try to keep up–it gets 184 times fewer page views than Wikipedia. The traditional book-form Britannica will live on as privately-edited for a while yet, since it carries a historic name and the inertia of authority. That’s something Encarta just couldn’t do.