Farewell to Encarta

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.

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Jay Gibson Reply

Very well said Tony. Encarta, Bookshelf, Cinemania and the many other early CD-ROM titles helped blaze a trail towards the rich media we all enjoy on the web today.

Your example with Carbon Dating is very insightful. World Book was the resource I had when I was a kid. Encarta is what my kids use today (ages 5, 9 and 12). I do not believe the next wave of 10 year olds are better off with Google + Wikipedia. Readability and context really do matter.

On the nostalgia side, I am very fond of the time I worked on these products. I was part of the original Encarta research project, wrote a big chunk of the code for version 1 (Encarta 1993) and was the Group Program Manager during its growth from a single CD to an rich DVD suite, across many international adaptations. It was an amazing, fun time to be part of Microsoft.

Like Tony, I have huge respect for the teams who created these titles. I too learned much from these fine folks. Many have moved on to other parts of Microsoft and are, like Tony, leaders and innovators in various parts of the company. They are smart people who respect great design, clear editorial voice and powerful software.

Thanks for your post Tony. I too am sad to see Encarta go, but am very proud of what we created together.

Cheers - Jay

John-Daniel Trask Reply

Shame to see Encarta go. When we got our first PC it was one of the three software packages - MS Works, Encarta and 101 Games (all shareware!)

I still find myself uttering the lines from the built in game (mind maze was it?) "I challenge you to a duel of the mind". Played that heaps. Encarta helped me go from a fairly average student to a fairly good one with school work.

Being the geek that I am I can still recite, including impersonating the voice, of the short bill gates video.

Thanks for the great work guys, it will be missed :-)

- JD

P.S. Grea point about the kids with wikipedia. Maybe they need a wikipedia for kids.

Tony S Reply

When I was in Middle School, I think my first computer that I can actually operate by myself came bundled with Encarta 97, Sim Tower from Maxis and a Microsoft card game - it was bliss because I would use every excuse in the book to use the computer in the name of Encarta for research. I must have wasted several afternoons playing MindMaze and re-watching the “how to play soccer” video! Printing out the maps and images from the articles for projects was such a novelty at the time [and crediting it to me by cutting out the Encarta by-line credit and rat out classmates who didn’t!].

As the school term progresses, I found myself needing Encarta more and more for current events that I could understand in plain English as a 12 year old. Wikipedia wasn’t around that time so information either came from library books, Encarta or the “evil” Encyclopaedia Britannica with its buggy software and navigation content that doesn’t seem to go anywhere on a Pentium II era machine at the library.

I still have the email in which the GM of Cinemania personally explaining to me why it was discontinued. [Geek]

When the internet information age arrived, there wasn’t many accessible website that have local historical content about New Zealand – Encarta articles about NZ save my bacon a couple times. It was there where I learn about the Treaty of Waitangi; when I took the Treaty as a university paper topic for undergrads, I didn’t have enough balls to admit to the professor that I learn about the Treaty from Encarta!

The most bizarre encounter I had with Encarta was when a Japanese Homestay and I argued about the birth date of Abraham Lincoln: she cited her copy of Japanese Encarta as a creditable source!

I still have the paperback copy of Encarta’s attempt at dictionaries in my room!

I also have a copy of “Student 2006” version acquired from the beta test somewhere. You will be missed!

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