Recently, Microsoft announced that we would be ending both the DVD and online editions of the Encarta products on October 31, 2009. I was part of that team when I worked on Bookshelf. I also was the program manager for the first version of Encarta Online.
While I understand why the company made this decision, I'm still sad. The Wikipedia and the broader internet are amazing resources of information, and I love both dearly. However, I think we're losing something with the disappearance of the consistent editorial voice and perspective that products like Encarta had vs. the crowd-sourced, mass view of something like Wikipedia.
What's more, I think kids are losing a huge asset in Encarta. A lot of articles in Wikipedia are simply not written in a way that is understandable to kids. Take for example, the first line of the the articles on carbon dating, which Andrew (11) just had to research.
Encarta Encyclopedia (Carbon Dating): "Carbon Dating, method for determining the approximate age of ancient objects by measuring the amount of carbon 14 they contain."
Wikipedia (Radiocarbon Dating): "Radiocarbon dating, or carbon dating, is a radiometric dating method that uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 (14C) to determine the age of carbonaceous materials up to about 60,000 years."
Even I don't understand all of the words in the Wikipedia article. I'll have to go buy a copy of the last DVD version so the kids have something they can use.
It's also worth looking back at how innovative these reference products were back in the day. The old story about Encarta is that it was a second-rate grocery store encyclopedia (Funk & Wagnalls) dressed up with some multimedia assets. But, it was much more than that. Encarta really revolutionized encyclopedias and helped bring the end of print encyclopedias. It was the first encyclopedia to have comprehensive updates every year (and eventually monthly) and was freed from the constraints of print. (For print encyclopedias to add content to one article, they have to remove text from another one in that volume.)
The team also created different versions for different markets. The creation of local market versions of reference products is a fascinating and challenging topic; you can't just translate articles; different countries have different perspectives on history plus articles have different relative importance. For example, the baseball article in the US should be long and detailed, but it probably shouldn't be more detailed than the cricket article in the British version.
The user interface of Encarta starting in 1995 was also very innovative. It was the first major product to move away from the grey 3D Windows 3.x UI to the more sleek, flat look you see today. It was a huge pain-in-the-butt to develop for our programmers, but I think it was critical to Encarta's success and one of the few good models in Microsoft history of how to let design lead development (vs. the other way around, which is more typical at MS.)
I learned a lot during my time working on Encarta and Bookshelf and have nothing but respect and admiration for my colleagues and friends from that period. I'm proud of what we accomplished, and am sad to see these products fade into the sunset. I hope something else will fill the gap.