The Story of Encarta


From a New York Times article, published two months ago, about the end of the line for Encarta:

“It’s hard to look at the end of the Encarta experiment without the free and much larger Wikipedia springing immediately to mind. But Encarta arguably would have failed even without that competition. The Google-indexed Web forms a virtual encyclopedia that Encarta never had a chance of competing against.”

The article continues:

Encarta was conceived pre-Web and had a long gestation. In 1985, Bill Gates envisioned a CD-ROM encyclopedia as a “high-price, high-demand” product with the potential of becoming as profitable to Microsoft as Word or Excel. Microsoft tried unsuccessfully to license rights to Encyclopedia Britannica’s text, then World Book’s. It finally found a willing licensor in Funk & Wagnalls.

The rest of the history goes something like this: Microsoft originally thought it might be able to sell copies of its CD-ROM encyclopedia for $1,000 to $2,000, but by the time they finally got Encarta to market, the going price for CD-ROM encyclopedias was $395. So they offered theirs at that price, only to be immediately undercut by Compton’s. So Microsoft promptly undercut Compton’s, and Encarta went on to become the best-selling CD-ROM encyclopedia in the world at $99. Its peak year was 2000, but thereafter the product went into a slow decline; its final selling price earlier this year, as an online-only product, was $22.95. The only reason it hung on so long was that certain international markets for it didn’t have reliable internet access until recently.

Although the article argues that Google, more than Wikipedia, has made CD-ROM encyclopedias commerically unviable as a mass product, there are surely additional factors contributing to its demise as a niche product as well. For example, I do a significant amount of research every day; surely I’d be among those who would want to purchase a reliable, carefully-edited encyclopedia. In theory, I could be induced to spend a great deal of money on such a resource.

However, whenever it’s appropriate for me to look up or verify information in an encyclopedia, I use the Britannica or Funk & Wagnall’s proper — not because I have a great love of these particular books, but simply because their full text is available online, for free, any time of day or night, to anyone with a valid San Francisco Public Library card. So why would I pay even as little as $22.95 to use an Encarta when I have free access to another, equally reliable encyclopedia?


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →