Thursday, October 23, 2008

The end of Encarta encyclopedia?

It looks like the reign of Encarta as the leader in consumer electronic encyclopedias is coming to an end. With the release of Microsoft Student, the amount of encyclopedic content added was slowing down, with an emphasize shifting towards homework tools. Starting around the same time in 2006, the amount of articles and media have fluctuated as well, sometimes going down and then gradually increasing as "improved features" for the next year. Coincidently, in July 2006 Microsoft contracted out the maintenance of Encarta to Websters Multimedia Inc, a subsidiary of UK-based Websters International Publishers. According to Webster's website, the majority of their editorial team have worked in house for Microsoft as either staff or contractors.

Having worked in the software industry and have gone through the slow and agonizing downsizing of a company due to changing markets, this does not look good for the continuing survival of Encarta as an leading-edge education product. Here are some thoughts on this conjecture.

1. The slowing down of adding innovative features and content shows the product is reaching maturity status, with no expected new growth and just a steady or even declining customer base.

2. The contracting of maintenance means the management does not see the product as fitting in their core-focus to maximizing return on investment, and it is time to phase it out. Reading between the lines from Websters statement that "the majority of their editorial team have worked in house for Microsoft as either staff or contractors", it sounds like the editorial team from Encarta was laid off but was luckily rehired by Websters. This follows a classic path of phasing out a product.

3. A disc-based encyclopedia no longer has the the killer-app factor as it had in the late 1990's, so value of an associated encyclopedia brand does not add much value to the company. Of the old competitors, such as Comptons, Grolier, World Book and Britannica, only Britannica survived in the consumer market. Of the new competitors such as Wikipedia, companies have only limited success in convincing consumers that convenient, edited, accurate and objective content is worth paying for.

4. The marketing of Encarta 2009 is greatly reduced. The 2009 edition of Encarta does not appear to be available at the retail level yet. Usually the next year edition of Encarta is available by August or September, by so far it appears to be available only as a direct purchase from Microsoft. Some product links on the Microsoft site still points to previous version of the product (from 2006 to 2008), no press release have been written, and viewing the current product information requires the installation of Silverlight. This all seems to point to a phase out.

As a fan of reference works, it is a little sad to see how Encarta is slowly ending.
Having bought and used Encarta over the last decade, I can look back with fond memories: browsing through what seems like an infinite list of articles; following the evolution of the user interface interface; feel the excitement with major additions of content such the sidebars, the Collier yearbooks, and the book summaries. Thank you Encarta for being part of my lifelong learning.