FSM Newsletter 12 April 2009

Microsoft has recently announced that its beloved encyclopaedia, Microsoft Encarta, will soon be discontinued. After October 31, 2009 its contents will no longer be available. Both the online version and the CD ROM version will be discontinued.

My first reaction was "what a pity". My job is to gather and publish good contents. I know how much work goes into creating and publishing material. This news must have been quite hard to digest for people who have been working on Encarta for a while. The two main questions that come to mind, however, are: "Why?", and more importantly, "What about the contents?"

When it came out, Encarta was both courageous and innovative. Microsoft had some serious cash back then, and was trying to find new ways of exploiting technologies in "cool" ways. It was actually a decent encyclopaedia which competed with the more established (and very expensive) ones.

Then, years passed and the world changed quite drastically. The Internet became reality, and Wikipedia was created. Some can say that Wikipedia killed Encarta. To me, it's more like "free licensing and the internet community killed Encarta". Compare Encarta's 62,000 entries with Wikipedia's 2,700,000 articles. And it's not just about numbers, but quality: having used both of them, I feel I can say that Wikipedia is simply better. Much better. And more current. The reason is simple: Encarta wasn't better than Wikipedia because it couldn't afford to be. Bill Gates could have spent the best part of his fortune getting an extra 2,638,000 articles written up -- and get them to the level and depth of Wikipedia. Assuming that he was successful in doing so, however, it would have been totally uneconomical: he would have never, ever made his money back. Wikipedia is so much stronger because it has a huge horde of users who will keep on improving it and working on it, for free. That's the power of a strong community working towards an end. But it's also about licensing: Wikipedia's content is released under a free license -- the GNU Free Documentation License, to be precise. This meant that "nobody and everybody" owns Wikipedia's contents. All of it is available online, whereas only a subset of Encarta was. Free licensing meant that people reused Wikipedia's contents, which made it even more popular. In the end, Wikipedia just won everybody's heart, and obscured pay-per-view products.

Encarta could have possibly survived if Microsoft had kept it current with the emerging technologies. Maybe (and I say maybe) we could have a healthy Encarta today if:

  • Users could create "forks" of entries, with editors ultimately approving the changes. Note that this functionality entered Encarta in 2005, but it was clumsy to use

  • Made all of its contents available for free -- all of it. The "premium", "student", "web" versions just created a messy feel about it. This obviously implies that the content should have been available on any browser, and on any operating system

  • Worked on creating a community of users, more than a set of customers

All of these points are totally out of line with what Microsoft would normally do. I also doubt that Microsoft could have done all this: Encarta is the result of several acquisitions of existing encyclopaedias which existed in the printed world, and were discontinued after the licensing agreement with Encarta. I don't know what the agreements say, but I very much doubt that Microsoft could have actually turn around and have released the contents under a free license. I have no grounds to back this statement, but I think it's very likely that I am right. The proprietary world, with licensing agreements, contracts, lawyers and so on stifle freedom and innovation.

This brings us to the next point: what about the current material published in Encarta? Will it bitrot? The answer is "most probably". It would take a mixture of luck, will, and good lawyers to free Encarta and make sure it's available to everybody. Knowing Microsoft, if they ever went that way they would make sure that it's only available to Windows users with some sort of proprietary ActiveX installed.

I guess all we can do is spend our time improving our Wikipedia, rather than mourning for yet another proprietary project that gets terminated and lost forever.

Happy editing.


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