What happened to Encarta? From revolutionizing knowledge on the Internet to a victim of democracy

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It became so popular that its logo and the sound of their intros they became two brands just as identifiable as those of Nokia or Windows. If —as the person who writes this— you had to go through school or institute between the second half of the 90s and the first half of the 2000s, talking about the Encarta does not require great introductions. If not, don’t worry; It won’t take us long. Before Wikipedia offered free online knowledge and even the use of the Internet became popular, Microsoft launched a digital encyclopedia that revolutionized the sector and became a phenomenon between more or less 1993 and 2009. Its name: encarta.

Today, ironies of history, “Encarta” is one more entry in the index of other encyclopedias; but there was a time when it transformed our way of accessing knowledge. From having to leave their eyelashes and fingertips browsing pages in search of a piece of information, the students went on to search for information at the click of a button. The Encarta offered an agile, comfortable and, above all, educational way to satisfy curiosity. With articles, yes; but also with videos, audios and even virtual tours and games. You could read about Nepalese temples on the Salvat. Or open the Encarta and “walk through” one.

Its “pull” was so great that it put the old paper encyclopedias in trouble. When the Spanish edition was introduced in early 1997, its managers presumed that the Encarta CD-ROM, a format you could keep in a drawer or even a folder, contained information that it was equivalent to 29 volumes and 1.2 meters of shelving. Not only that. The Encarta cost 24,900 pesetas, four times less than an equivalent printed encyclopedia.

To make matters worse, his landing in Spain was covered by Santillana, publishing house with considerable weight in school classrooms. How to compete with that? The product was liked and chained editions, in Spanish and other languages. It went well for him until, with the same ones with which he had become a phenomenon, ended up succumbing to the competition. In a way, his success is due to his good sense of smell in the 90s; its decline, to the inability to adapt in the 2000s.

This is his story.

Objective: reinvent the old encyclopedias

In the mid-1980s, Microsoft began to toy with the idea of ​​creating a digital encyclopedia. The idea was ambitious. Those of Redmond wanted, neither more nor less, than to rethink the concept and the operation of a product that seemed as mature and closed as the volumes that were dedicated to selling publishers’ commercials door to door. To make a big debut, the multinational tried to negotiate a license with the creators of what was probably the most respected publication on an international level: the Encyclopædia Britannica. It didn’t go well for them.

In the 1980s paperbacks of Britannica were being sold and left some fat profits. As Enrique Dans recallsHis books cost about $250 to produce, and the selling price ranged from $1,500 to $2,200, depending on the quality. Why would the firm want to digitize content on a CD and risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs?

Microsoft did not give up and looked for ways to move the idea forward. He even had a name for the initiative: Project Gandalf. Some time later, he closed a contract with Funk & Wagnalls to use your New Encyclopedia, of 29 volumes, in a database that was created at the end of that same decade. To complete its contents, years later two other McMillan encyclopedias would be added, the Collier’s and New Merit Scholar. they were not the Britannica; but it should be worth it.

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In Redmond, however, doubts arose as to whether or not the project was viable and they decided to park it. It was picked up again at the turn of the decade, in 1991, when Microsoft decided to go all out. In 1993 he launched the first edition of the Encarta Encyclopedia, which included 25,000 Funk & Wagnalls articles and extra material, such as images and some animations.

The tool was comfortable, much more agile than the kilometric tomes and even fun, but it started with a blunder: the wrong center of the shot. At the beginning of the 90s there were still many houses without a PC and the marketing price was exclusive. When it came out, the Encarta cost close to $400, which severely limited its reach. The cost deterred customers and was not too far removed from that of another competitor exploring the same niche with a recognizable brand, Compton, which also launched your own media version in 1990, with text and supports such as images and sounds.

In Redmond they knew how to react and in a short time they were already deploying a more aggressive strategy. They launched promotions that allowed them to get hold of the Encarta for $99They included their CD with the Windows software package and negotiated with manufacturers to include it in their computers, a tactic not unlike that used with Windows and Office. The promotion of Microsoft itself gave the final push. The new encyclopedia gained fame and began to chain editions, translate into different languages and enrich content with multimedia supports.

In 1995 abridged versions of some articles were offered to ISP subscribers of the Microsoft Network and from 96 standard and deluxe editions began to be released, an enriched version that could be updated month by month. In 1998 its creators went a step further and acquired the rights to several electronic encyclopedias. The product grew and, above all, showed that the sector was undergoing a clear paradigm shift. The best example: in 1996 the once powerful Britannica company ended up selling out for their difficulties.

“Allows young and old to explore the world by themes and characters,” their promoters presumed in the Spanish market. And so it was, indeed. Through articles, photos, illustrations, charts, maps, timelines, recordings, videos, and even virtual tours, Encarta won over an entire generation of students. Until it was stamped with one of the great and inexorable maxims of the market: Why pay for content if you have a free alternative?

Wikipedia’s sledgehammer

After releasing editions since 1993, developing special versions aimed at children, focused on mathematics or African history —among others— and enriching its resources with music, dictionaries, recordings, maps, animations… It came to an end. The reason: another clear change of the times that, on this occasion, caught Microsoft on the wrong foot. In 2001 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sangers they launched Wikipediaa collaborative, didactic online encyclopedia and, most important of all, free and very easy to access through search engines such as Google.

Wikipedia had its handicaps, of course. The main one —especially in its origins— was that content control was much less rigorous than that of Encarta. In his struggle with Microsoft, that weakness did not seem to affect him too much. The new formula, totally open and democratizing both access to content and its preparation, ended up convincing the public and forced those from Redmond to rethink your strategy. It was priced as low as $29.95 and was often included in bundled deals with other products. Seeing that neither one way nor the other served to maintain the brand, in April 2005 Microsoft made a risky move.

In an attempt to emulate the strengths of the Wikipedia model, the Redmonders solicited input from their readers. His proposal was that they participate in the updating and creation of articles, only with a slightly different model to that of the Wales and Sangers platform. To mark distances with Wikipedia, it was decided that its contents would be supervised at the editorial level. The measure could suppose a guarantee of rigor and quality; but in practice it meant that the authors who agreed to collaborate risked seeing their texts end up in the drawer. Not to mention that the work was free and Microsoft, a multinational millionaire billing.

1366 2000

That did not work, nor did the cheapening of the product or the attempts to promote the brand. Another strategy without great results was the creation of the online edition of Encarta in 2000, a new version that initially offered a freemium model: It offered part of its content for free and forced to pay for the CD or a downloadable package if you wanted to complete it with the rest of the material. Neither one nor the other. In 2008 its English edition added a whopping 68,000 items —43,000 in Spanish—, an outrage when compared to paper encyclopedias, but nothing when you take into account the about 300,000 of the Spanish Wikipedia that same year.

Result: in 2009 Microsoft took its defeat and threw in the towel. In March, those responsible for it advanced their intention to eliminate the website between October and December of that same year. The winds of change that had favored it in the 1990s made it shipwreck in the 21st century. “The traditional category of encyclopedias and reference materials has changed,” she lamented.

Download Wikipedia: how to download articles or ALL Wikipedia to read it offline

Perhaps the best epitaph for his disappearance is the one dedicated to him by Bloomberg on March 30, 2009, when the editor who wrote the chronicle of his death —titled “Goodbye Encarta”— admitted that he had gotten the information about that old Microsoft product from… The Wikipedia!

Images Anatoly Shashkin

It became so popular that its logo and the sound of their intros they became two brands just as identifiable…

It became so popular that its logo and the sound of their intros they became two brands just as identifiable…

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